OTTAWA - A tough October schedule is giving the Ottawa Senators an early chance to see what an off-season of retooling has done for them.
After opening the year with back-to-back games against the Stanley Cup finalist Pittsburgh Penguins in Stockholm last weekend, the Senators returned to Ottawa this week to catch their collective breath before playing host to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.
It's the first of five straight games at Scotiabank Place that will provide the revamped team the opportunity to see how its new lineup sizes up against the rest of the league.
"When the schedule came out, we looked at our schedule and we had the Stanley Cup finalists, and Phoenix had made a bunch of moves, and Anaheim . . . it's not going to be an easy start for us," Senators centre Jason Spezza said after practice Thursday. "It's a good test with a new coach and a new bunch of guys. We're definitely not going to get any free points early in the year.
"It's a challenge to have these teams come in and we're looking forward to it."
After taking three of four possible points from the Penguins in Sweden, the Senators were at least afforded time to get their legs back.
They arrived back in Ottawa early Monday morning and returned to the ice Tuesday. They took part in off-ice workouts only on Wednesday and practised again Thursday while most of the rest of the NHL was opening the regular season in North America.
"Coming back from Europe, it certainly would have been tough to play earlier in the week," coach Craig Hartsburg said.
Added Spezza: "You think you feel good and then you get on the ice and you're a little bit tired still. It's a much-needed break."
Hartsburg, who took over behind the bench in the summer, and the rest of the Senators were encouraged by their own start against the Penguins, but they don't want to rest there.
"It's two games and we're not satisfied by any means," said defenceman Jason Smith, who made his Ottawa debut after signing as a free agent from Philadelphia in July. "Going forward as a team, you're looking to improve and get better every game."
Saturday's visit by the Red Wings is a good chance for the Senators to see how they shape up.
"They're kind of a measuring stick for everybody else in the league," Spezza said. "We hope to give them a good game and kind of measure ourselves up to where we think what level we're at and see where we have to get to."
It wouldn't be a Senators season without questions raised about the team's goaltending and this year the debate has started even earlier than usual.
Martin Gerber, the designated No. 1, had a shaky outing in a 4-3 overtime loss in the season opener while a day later, Alex Auld was solid in a 3-1 victory.
Hartsburg put a quick end to any debate by naming Gerber as his starter against the Red Wings.
Gerber will get a chance to redeem himself against a team that, in a recent poll of NHL general managers by TSN, has been picked as the favourite to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
"They're a team that the first thing you always want to talk about is their skill, but when you watch them play, they work extremely hard, they play great defensive hockey, they don't turn many pucks over," Hartsburg said. "I think that's the part that probably gets lost when people talk about Detroit."
One concern is the health of current second-line centre Mike Fisher, who missed most of the pre-season and both games in Stockholm because of a groin injury.
Fisher skated on his own Wednesday and took part in practice Thursday, but isn't sure he'll be ready to make his season debut Saturday. The Senators don't play again until next Friday, so they won't rush him back if he's not ready to go.
"I'm feeling all right (but) still getting a bit of comfort here and there," he said. "Obviously, I want to play very badly, it's a big game. But if not, I'll take the week and be ready to play next week."