OTTAWA -- Two Hart Trophy candidates will square off when the Ottawa Senators host the Chicago Blackhawks at Canadian Tire Centre on Thursday night.
In one corner, Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson. In the other, Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane.
"He's the complete package," Senators coach Guy Boucher said Wednesday of his captain, who trails only San Jose's Brent Burns in scoring by blue-liners and also leads the league in blocked shots.
Asked if Karlsson deserves Hart consideration as well as to win the Norris Trophy, Boucher was emphatic in his response.
"Oh my God, absolutely, 100 percent," he said. "With what he's done this year, the way he's done it, I can't imagine better. I just can't. Right now, it's absolutely sublime, it really is. In every aspect, leadership, on ice, off ice, he's at the core of what we're trying to do."
What the Senators (39-22-7) have done so far is become contenders for first place in the Atlantic Division, trailing only the Montreal Canadiens by one point with two games in hand. Last year they missed the playoffs by 11 points.
Meanwhile, with a goal and two assists in Tuesday's 4-2 win over the Canadiens that bumped Chicago (44-20-5) past the Minnesota Wild and into first in the Central Division, Kane moved himself into a tie for the NHL scoring lead with 76 points.
In the last nine games, he has 11 goals and 16 points.
After Wednesday's practice at Canadian Tire Centre, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was asked if Kane is playing better than he did last season, when he won the Hart.
"I see Kaner every single year get a little bit better," said Quenneville. "He gets a little bit faster, quicker, he gets the puck, he demands the puck, and once he has it, he does so many good things with it. He's shooting the puck as good as he ever as too."
The Blackhawks have learned they will be without center Artem Anisimov for 3-4 weeks with a lower body injury he suffered in Montreal. It's hoped that Anisimov, who was having a career year with 45 points, will be back before Chicago plays its regular season finale on April. 8.
Nick Schmaltz is expected to move into his spot between Kane and Artemi Panarin on the first line. Former third round pick John Hayden is expected to make his NHL debut in Ottawa, likely starting the game as a winger for Jonathan Toews.
The Senators said on Wednesday that a lower body injury suffered by goalie Craig Anderson will keep him out of the lineup for a second straight game, but is not serious. Anderson skated before the team's practice and is considered day-to-day.
Mike Condon will start in goal for Ottawa on Thursday. Condon made 23 saves when the Senators defeated the Blackhawks 4-3 in Chicago on Dec. 20, the only meeting between the teams this season.
The teams split in 2015-16, with the Senators scoring a 4-3 overtime victory in Ottawa.