The Ottawa Senators are this close to a playoff berth, yet the Boston Bruins could also make that claim with a victory as the Northeast Division rivals meet in a pivotal game at Scotiabank Place on Friday.
The Senators (43-30-8), the reigning Eastern Conference champions, are one point shy of clinching a spot in the postseason after routing their provincial archrivals - the Toronto Maple Leafs - 8-2 on the road Thursday. Antoine Vermette had his first career hat trick for Ottawa, which snapped a three-game losing streak and broke out offensively - scoring three short-handed goals - after being shut out in consecutive games.
But there may have been a high price for the victory. Captain and right wing Daniel Alfredsson, who had two assists in the first period, left the game with an upper-body injury and "a bit of a knee injury" according to Senators coach Bryan Murray after being drilled by Mark Bell on a clean, open-ice hit in the first period. Earlier in the opening period, second-line center Mike Fisher left with an apparent knee injury.
Murray said Alfredsson likely will not play in this game, while Fisher's status is uncertain. The Senators coach also took issue with Bell's crunching shoulder check.
"I didn't like the hit," Murray said. "The knee came out, and it was a hit to the head."
Ottawa - playing its season finale - has 94 points and begins play in sixth, two ahead of Boston (40-28-12) and Washington, who are tied for seventh. The Senators could miss the playoffs with a regulation loss, a win by the Capitals and two wins by the Philadelphia Flyers in their last two games.
Vermette, who has career highs of 23 goals and 29 assists, has five and four, respectively, in his last six games. He has two goals and two assists in seven games versus the Bruins this season.
Dany Heatley, who netted two goals Thursday to surpass 40 for the third straight season, has four goals and three assists in six games against Boston and recorded a hat trick in a 4-1 victory March 11.
With Alfredsson likely out, both Vermette and Heatley likely will have to play important roles against the Bruins, who almost certainly will start Tim Thomas in net. Thomas is 3-0-1 with two shutouts, a stellar 0.49 goals-against average and a .984 save percentage in his last four starts versus Ottawa.
Thomas has a shutout streak of 128 minutes, 24 seconds against the Senators entering this game, not allowing a goal since Vermette scored with 8:24 to play in the third period of a 4-1 Bruins' victory Jan. 31 at Ottawa.
The Bruins picked up one point in a 3-2 shootout loss to New Jersey on Wednesday, extending their streak to six games (3-0-3). Dennis Wideman and Milan Lucic scored second-period goals for Boston, which could not protect the lead in the third period before failing to score against Martin Brodeur in a four-round shootout.
The failure to get the win gnawed at coach Claude Julien, who was fired by the Devils before last year's playoffs.
"It's really up to us to do our job and worry about winning our hockey games," he said. "That's where we are at now, and that's why that second point would have been huge."
Ottawa leads the season series 4-3, but the Bruins have won three of the last four games between the teams. Thomas turned aside 34 shots in a 4-0 rout at Boston on March 29, while Marco Sturm and David Krejci each had a goal and an assist.
The Bruins conclude their regular season Saturday at Montreal.