There's no reason to hide the obvious. This is not just another game for the Buffalo Sabres. It's a chance to turn around a moribund season. It's a chance for the Sabres to prove they are as good as they think and not as bad as the standings show.
It's a chance to beat the Ottawa Senators, the No. 1 team in the NHL.
"They're the best right now, and we're right at the bottom," Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek said. "So if you want to kick-start your season, that's the way to do it."
The last-place Sabres face the first-place Senators for the first time this season in Scotiabank Place. The Sabres have won just once in the previous six games, while the Sens have won 14 of 16. Throw in the teams' bitter playoff meetings from the past two seasons, and no one even feigns belief that this game is just one of 82 on the schedule.
"It definitely feels like a big game, big week," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. "I'm excited to play these guys. It'll be a good test of how well we can play. I think we can put together a game, and I think we're the team we're capable of being."
The game looks like a mismatch on paper. The Senators lead the league with their 14-2 record, and the Sabres are tied for last at 6-9-1. The Sens have scored 10 more goals than the Sabres and have given up 18 fewer. They've been dominant at home (9-2) while Buffalo has been lackluster on the road (2-5-1).
But there's one thing that immediately comes to mind for the Sabres: an early season meeting the teams had last season. Ottawa limped into Buffalo at 6-10-1, and it had won just once in the previous eight games. The Senators rallied with three goals in the third period to win, 4-2, and beat a Sabres club that entered the game 15-1-1.
"It is the same type of analogy," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We can't win right now, and they've done nothing but win since the start of the year. It could be a big turning point for us if we go in there and win."
Last year's win turned the season around for the Senators. It kick-started a 54-18-8 run that culminated with a five-game rout of the Sabres in the Eastern Conference finals.
"We're going to have to play well to beat them," Sabres center Paul Gaustad said. "It's definitely going to be a playoff atmosphere. We do have bitter memories of them knocking us out last year, so that's something that we're not going to take lightly. It's going to be a great challenge for us."
The Senators have stormed to the top of the league behind their captain and a player who was almost cast off.
Daniel Alfredsson, who was a candidate for MVP of the playoffs last season, hasn't slowed. He is second in the NHL with 13 goals and has 10 assists. He also has three of the Senators' league-high five short-handed goals.
But the top story in Canada's capital is the resurgence of goalie Martin Gerber. He was signed to a three-year, $11.1 million contract prior to last season, but he lost his job to Ray Emery and never got it back. The Senators reportedly were looking to ship Gerber out of town. There were no takers, but it appears there should have been. Gerber has gone 11-1 with a 1.73 goals-against average and .943 save percentage.
"It seems like every team we play now we're bumping up against some of the guys that have been going best, and that task doesn't get any easier," Ruff said.
The Sabres, who've struggled mightily to score, spent their week of practice working on finishing. Now they get to see if playing a bitter enemy will allow them a fresh start.
"I think a little bit of rivalry is good for us," Ruff said. "And there is some built-up hatred between the teams. We knocked them off [two playoffs ago], they knocked us off [last postseason]. Now we get to meet again."