Ottawa is off to a fine start to their 2013 campaign and are the first un-ambigiously good 5 on 5 team the Habs have faced this season. However, they are missing their top forward which may swing the advantage to MTL.
The Ottawa Senators were something of a surprise team in 2011-12, bouncing back from two consecutive bottom 10 finishes to make the playoffs. The biggest factor was no longer being terrible in net, with Craig Anderson being a decent starting goaltender for them. But they also managed to become a positive possession team after being somewhat negative before. The credit for this can be placed on the emergence of Erik Karlsson as their squad's top possession player. This mirrors the huge possession boost the Habs got when P.K. Subban first suited up for them regularly in 2010-11.
So how do the Senators match up for tonight's match against the Canadiens?
Losing Jason Spezza for a "upper body" injury puts a big hole in the Senators lineup. He is the team's most offensively capable forward and the sort of player that can carry some less capable wingers into an effective scoring line. His replacement is Peter Regin whose generally been nothing more than depth for the Senators despite playing well in one playoff series against the Penguins. He's flanked by a capable goal scorer in Michalek and a promising rookie in Silverberg, but with Regin in the middle they shouldn't be that dangerous. Their most dangerous line should be their former 2nd unit, with Kyle Turris whose career is resurgent with Ottawa and old Daniel Alfredsson. They've been negative on possession so far this year though so maybe they aren't playing up to potential
Ottawa's depth, grown through their farm system shouldn't be underestimated. They've all been positive on possession to start this season, albeit in minimal minutes. Zibanejad and Condra fill the Galchenyuk-Gallagher role on this squad as talented youth in managed minute roles. With Spezza this was a group without a singly great line at for any of their roles but all could perform their roles adequately, without him I'd say they are a bit weak in the top six.
Ottawa does not have a dominant two-way shutdown line and runs their units relatively even. Smith is the go to guy for defensive zone faceoffs though.
Karlsson is this team's star player and the heart of their 5 on 5 game. His ability to play like a 4th forward at times as well as being a good transition game defenseman gives the Sens a strong advantage when he is on the ice. This year he's 12.1 relCorsi, which reflects both his impact and his frequent use in offensive situations. Philips-Gonchar play as the team's shut-down unit 5 on 5. They aren't that great at it though and tend to lose the possession battle when on the ice.
Ottawa's 3rd unit plays a pure sheltered role and not a lot of minutes. But they don't get killed out there which is a good sign for the Sens. Still, they are likely a point of vulnerability if a team is ready to exploit it.
The key to this team is the Karlsson pairing, but a defenseman isn't a player you counter directly but instead counter the forwards he needs to work with. Likely the decisive engagement for MTL is getting Plekanec out against Turris's line and pinning them in their own end. Montreal is in a good position to reduce Ottawa's best forwards to ineffectiveness as they have no-one to match Plekanec's unit 5 on 5. Otherwise, the Habs can likely trust their bottom 3 lines to fight their own local battles against Ottawa's bottom 3. Montreal doesn't have last change so best use of Galchenyuk's line is either in rotation after the top 2 lines have played Ottawa's best or taking offensive zone draws against whoever Ottawa. Their shouldn't be anything fancy to Montreal's defensemen usage, the Sens don't have a singularly dominant line and Montreal doesn't have the last change to specifically tailor their usage.
Spezza was the PP's top scorer, possession driver and had the 2nd highest on ice goals for last season. This team has a solid man-advantage with him. Without him I don't think they are that dangerous even if Karlsson and Gonchar make a good top pairing. This is were losing Spezza hurts Ottawa the most.
Penalty kill was below average last season, but has been very good through 6 games for OTT running at 88%. Phillips has been particularly effective. This could be a big test for Montreal's resurgent man-advantage.
The Senators have been a very strong possession team out of the gate and were above average the year before. Even without Spezza this should be a pretty close affair 5 on 5. On special teams, I'd take the Habs PP over the Sens but I'm not sure how good the Senator's PK should be considered.
Back to back game with both sides missing key pieces. This should be a close game but something crazy could happen with backups in net and tired players.