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The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are separated by one point in the Northeast Division standings.
That could change after the rivals play a home-and-home series, which begins Thursday at Scotiabank Place.
The Canadiens (29-20-6) are second in the division with 64 points - 14 behind first-place Buffalo - while the Senators (30-22-3) are right behind with 63 points. Montreal and Ottawa are currently the fourth and sixth seeds, respectively, in the Eastern Conference, where just three points separate the fourth and eighth-place teams.
Both clubs have lost three of their last four games, though, and are looking to get back on track.
"It's this time of the year and it's the same thing every year," said Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, who hasn't recorded a point in the last four games. "This league is very competitive. There are maybe one or two teams that seem like they'll make the playoffs, but from the third spot to the 12th or 13th spot, everything is open."
The Eastern Conference race grew even tighter Tuesday, when the Canadiens lost 2-1 to the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes. Alexei Kovalev's goal tied the game in the second period, but Montreal gave up its second power-play goal of the game just past the midway mark of the third.
The Canadiens' penalty-killing unit has struggled lately, thwarting only 12 of 21 opponent chances over the last four games.
Cristobal Huet could get the nod in goal for Montreal despite his recent struggles. The All-Star netminder is 4-8-0 with a 3.61 goals-against average in his last 12 starts, and has dropped three of his last four starts against the Senators while posting a 4.03 GAA.
Ottawa had a chance to jump over Montreal in the standings Wednesday, but fell 3-2 to the Sabres. Peter Schaefer tied the game early in the third period, but Buffalo's Thomas Vanek scored his second goal of the game with four minutes remaining.
Ottawa managed only six shots in the final 16 minutes of the loss, and leading scorer Dany Heatley failed to record a point for the fourth time in five games.
"We tried," Senators coach Bryan Murray said. "The guys had the puck and had a flurry for a couple of shifts, but not consistently."
The Senators will look for a better result at home, where they are 6-1-1 in their last eight games. They'll host a Montreal team that has dropped seven of its last nine on the road.
The Canadiens have won three of five meetings between the teams this season, however. Montreal got goals from Sheldon Souray, Mark Streit and Tomas Plekanec in a 2:24 span of the second period to beat Ottawa 3-1 on Jan. 29 at home.
Senators goaltender Ray Emery has dropped his last three starts beginning with that defeat, but backup Martin Gerber may get the start Thursday as Ottawa plays on consecutive nights. Gerber is 4-1-0 with a 2.41 GAA in five career starts versus the Canadiens.
Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov is day-to-day with a knee injury that has caused him to miss the last two games.