MONTREAL - It looks like only a matter of days before the Ottawa Senators get injured stars Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley back.
Perhaps then the hand-wringing, the team meetings and the losses that have eroded a once-comfortable lead in the NHL Eastern Conference standings will stop.
Alfredsson could be ready to return from a hip flexor on Thursday against Florida, while Heatley could be back from a shoulder injury Saturday at home against Montreal.
Neither was ready for a game Tuesday night against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
"I think they're both pretty close," coach John Paddock said. "I wouldn't put an exact date on them.
"Heater's not ahead of schedule, but he's on the short end of what we thought, so hopefully he's going to be back. I talked to Alfie and he's hoping to play Thursday. It's not a lock."
The Senators were on a high when they beat NHL overall leader Detroit 3-2 on Jan. 12, but Heatley was hurt in that game. After that, the Senators went on a 3-7-0 skid.
Alfredsson missed his fifth game in the last eight. Going into the Montreal game, Ottawa was 0-5 this season without its captain and scoring leader in the lineup.
The Senators have tried to learn to tighten their game and win without two of their three offensive motors, but it's been slow in coming. On Monday, they held a team meeting to go over their many defensive mistakes and drive home the need for better team play.
The other offensive star, Jason Spezza, has been less productive without his injured colleagues.
"Alfie plays a lot of minutes for us - he works hard and controls the puck - so if you take him out of the lineup, it hurts you," said Spezza.
"On top of that, it's a bad time for us to lose him because we were struggling a bit with him in the lineup, too. It makes you struggle a little more."
Ottawa's 7-7 January record combined with Montreal's 8-2-2 month tightened the race for first place both in the conference and in the Northeast Division. So the Canadiens now a pose a threat.
Defenceman Wade Redden said the Senators can't wait for their star players to return to start playing better hockey.
"We look at the standings, but that can't be our focus," he said. "If we focus on playing well, we'll win some games and have some success."
It is quite clear the Senators are a different team without Alfredsson, the 35-year-old who caught fire midway through last season, carried Ottawa to the Stanley Cup final and continued his hot pace into this season.
Before his latest injury, he was leading the NHL in scoring with 68 points, including 32 goals.
"He does have a presence, for sure," said Redden. "Every time he's on the ice for us, it doesn't matter the time of the game or the situation, he can grab a puck and settle things down.
"But I think it's good for us right now. I told him the other day: 'Stay out of the lineup till we win without you,' because we obviously can't rely on him all the time to bail us out. We have to do what he does - play calm and confident."
Alfredsson is an enigma - a player who seems to be getting better as he reaches an age at which others start planning their retirement.
Canadiens centre Bryan Smolinski spent a little over two seasons as Alfredsson's teammate in Ottawa and saw the Swedish winger up close.
"He's the heartbeat of the team," said Smolinski. "He's the guy that makes it go - the ultimate leader.
"He works hard and even though he's getting older, his game's got 10 times better. It looks like the game just got slower for him."
Still, a body can't go on forever, and a bad hip could be bad news for Ottawa. Alfredsson sat out two games Jan. 19 and 20, came back for three games that included a seven-point night against Tampa Bay, and now has missed three more.
Without him, the Senators look little like the explosive but defensively disciplined team that started the season 15-2.
"We can't sit here and feel sorry for ourselves because we're missing our two best players and expect other teams to have pity on us," added Redden. "We have to go out and earn things.
"We have to keep winning. Obviously, it'll be a different style. Those guys play big roles for us. But we still a have to find ways to win."