OTTAWA — How the Ottawa Senators perform in their next three games could determine how general manager Bryan Murray approaches the NHL trade deadline.
Ottawa (28-26-6) left Monday for a three-game western Canada road trip sitting six points behind Pittsburgh (30-20-8) for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Penguins have two games in hand.
The Senators have won three straight and for the first time in weeks seem to be playing with confidence. They open the road trip against Edmonton (22-32-6) on Tuesday before facing Vancouver (23-24-12) on Thursday, then wrap it up Saturday against Calgary (26-29-3).
"It's a real big trip for our team," said new defenceman Dion Phaneuf. "We took care of things at home.
"I think we did a lot of good things on the way we played but we want to continue to improve, continue to grow our game. We've got to do that Tuesday in Edmonton."
Ottawa's longest win streak this season is four games registered in November. Since then the team has struggled to find any consistency, that is, until recently.
The biggest difference now seems to be the Senators' willingness to keep things simple.
Just over a week ago the team opted for meetings over on-ice practices. Head coach Dave Cameron says a lot was hashed out during that time and it seems to have resonated with the players.
"We've been stubborn this year," he said. "We'll get rolling along and then we'll get stubborn and think we can be creative in a situation where the numbers dictate that we should get more ice behind.
"Then you end up chasing and the other team scores and your confidence ends up a bit wobbly and fragile. For the last 10 games, even though we lost three in a row, we felt we played real good hockey. We're making headway and we've got no margin for error and we've got to keep it going."
Players realize this week could impact how Murray looks at the Feb. 29 trade deadline.
"Anything that will make your team better you're always hopeful that something happens," said forward Bobby Ryan. "At the same time we have one of the closest groups I've been around so I don't think there's a whole lot of eagerness for change in the room."
Murray already made a huge move acquiring Phaneuf from the Toronto Maple Leafs while relieving himself of Colin Greening's contract and trading defenceman Jared Cowen, who hadn't lived up to expectations.
Murray has expressed an interest in another top-six forward but the price would have to be right. Ideally Murray would want a player with term remaining and not just a rental.
Even if Ottawa fails to get the results it wants on the road trip, it's still unlikely Murray would make major changes. Veteran Chris Neil, an unrestricted free agent at season's end, could be moved to a playoff contender and Murray might also consider dealing defenceman Patrick Wiercioch or forward Shane Prince as neither has fulfilled expectations.
NOTES — Phaneuf said playing for the final time at Rexall Place will be special. As a native of Edmonton, Phaneuf grew up watching the Oilers and has many fond memories both as a child and player . . . The Senators aren't expected to make any lineup changes for Tuesday's game . . . Clarke MacArthur will make the trip but isn't expected to return to the lineup. He's recovering from a concussion and hasn't received medical clearance to resume playing.
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press