March 27, 2004
GAME: Ottawa Senators (40-22-9-6) at Toronto Maple Leafs (42-24-9-3).
TIME: Saturday, 7 p.m. EST.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will finally get a break from playing first-place teams.
Their next opponent, however, is one of the best clubs in the NHL.
The Leafs and Ottawa Senators continue their battle for first place in the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference lead, when they play the first of two meetings in the next eight days.
The Boston Bruins lead Toronto in the division by one point, with Ottawa lurking one point behind the Leafs. Tampa Bay has a three-point lead over Philadelphia for the top spot in the conference, with the Leafs five back and the Senators six behind the Lightning.
Toronto's brutal stretch of schedule continued Thursday night with a matchup against first-place Boston. The Leafs' last five opponents have all been division leaders, and they improved to 3-2 in those games with a 3-0 road win over the Bruins.
Toronto got goals from 41-year-old Ron Francis and 37-year-old Joe Nieuwendyk, while 38-year-old Ed Belfour posted his eighth shutout of the season as the Leafs won for the fourth time in six games.
"Our veteran players shored up their game," Toronto coach Pat Quinn said. "We were disciplined and did the simple things we hadn't been doing recently."
Nieuwendyk thinks Belfour's experience should help the Leafs in their drive to end a 36-year Stanley Cup drought.
"I've played with him a long time and been through a few wars with him," said Nieuwendyk, who won the Stanley Cup with Belfour when they played for the Dallas Stars in 1999.
Ottawa got back on track in its last outing, beating Montreal 4-0 on the road Thursday to snap a two-game losing streak. The win was just the Senators' second in six games.
Daniel Alfredsson scored his 30th and 31st goals and added an assist, and Patrick Lalime made 29 saves to lead Ottawa.
"Tonight, I was able to get in the right place at the right time," said Alfredsson, who matched his career high of 78 points set last season.
Peter Bondra added two assists for the Senators, but was held without a goal for a ninth straight game. He has four goals and eight assists in 18 games since being acquired from the Washington Capitals.
"I'm looking for the keys - can you find the keys for my hands?" Bondra said jokingly. "The chances are there. Hopefully, it will come at the right time."
The Leafs and Senators meet again next Saturday in Ottawa - the regular season finale for both clubs.
STANDINGS: Senators - 95 points, 3rd place, 2 PB, Northeast Division. Maple Leafs - 96 points, 2nd place, 1 PB, Northeast Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Senators - Marian Hossa, 34 goals; Alfredsson, 47 assists; Hossa and Alfredsson, 78 points; Chris Neil, 173 PIM. Maple Leafs - Mats Sundin, 30 goals, 42 assists and 72 points; Tie Domi, 208 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS (through March 25): Senators - Power play: 21.8 percent (78 for 358), 2nd in NHL. Penalty killing: 83.8 percent (275 for 328), 19th. Maple Leafs - Power play: 19.9 percent (71 for 357), 5th. Penalty killing: 83.1 percent (309 for 372), 21st.
GOALTENDERS: Senators - Lalime (25-23-7, 5 SO, 2.30 GAA); Martin Prusek (14-5-2, 3, 1.91). Maple Leafs - Belfour (31-19-5, 8, 2.21); Trevor Kidd (6-5-2, 1, 3.26).
SEASON SERIES: Maple Leafs, 3-1.
LAST MEETING: Feb. 5; Maple Leafs 5-4, OT. At Ottawa, the Senators took a 4-0 lead early in the second period, but Owen Nolan's goal with 30.7 seconds left in overtime capped the Leafs' comeback.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Senators - 17-15-4-1 on the road; Maple Leafs - 21-14-2-2 at home.
-- Associated Press