TORONTO - There was a lot more battle in the latest instalment of the Battle of Ontario on Saturday night, with the Toronto Maple Leafs withstanding an early physical barrage to best the Ottawa Senators.
Alexei Ponikarovsky's go-ahead goal midway through the third period was the difference in a 3-1 Toronto victory in what was by far the grittiest of three meetings between the provincial rivals so far this season.
The Senators (13-18-5), desperately trying to pull themselves back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture, came out in a foul mood and went at every blue jersey they could find.
The Maple Leafs (16-17-6), backed by some strong goaltending from Vesa Toskala, were able to stand up to the challenge, and eventually take control of the contest.
"We tried to answer hit-for-hit - they were hitting a lot," said Ponikarovsky. "We tried to do the same thing, mirror them, don't give them any opportunity that they can throw us around. We showed that."
Tied 1-1 in the third, Pavel Kubina flew out of the box after serving a holding penalty and scooped up a loose puck just inside the Senators blue-line. He skated deep into the zone and sent a pass back to Ponikarovsky, who wired a wrist shot past Martin Gerber's stick side at 10:03.
Jason Blake then extended the lead to 3-1 with 4:09 left, tucking the puck past Gerber on a wraparound to extinguish the chances of an Ottawa comeback. Dominic Moore also scored as the Maple Leafs won for just the second time in six games.
"I thought they played with a good competitive edge tonight," said Moore. "I guess it was just our night."
Daniel Alfredsson replied for the Senators, who failed to build any momentum off their 3-2 victory Tuesday at Edmonton that ended a 12-game road winless streak. They have just three wins in their last 12 games overall and are fading fast in the East.
"A very tough loss for us," said Alfredsson. "We started the game really good, created a lot of chances. Toskala played outstanding tonight, we should've had four or five goals ...
"He keeps them in the game, they get a couple of chances and score."
The physical, hard-fought affair brought back memories of the bitter games the teams played in years past for the crowd of 19,406 on Canadian Forces Appreciation Night at the Air Canada Centre. Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Walter Natynczyk and his family dropped the ceremonial faceoff before joining the crowd in singing O Canada.
The animosity began on the first shift when Jason Spezza got his hands in Moore's face on a hit in the boards and later speared his opponent, earning a trip to the box for slashing.
Mike Fisher went at every blue shirt he could while Jeff Finger sent a few white jerseys into the boards. Nik Antropov sent Sens blue-liner Anton Volchenkov to the dressing room after a massive hit in the third with a right shoulder injury.
A handful of scrums developed after the whistle but players did little more than dance. Scoring chances were hard to come by and goals even scarcer.
"The games mean more now than they did earlier in the season," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson."
Alfredsson opened the scoring in the first period seconds after a two-man advantage expired, taking a pretty pass from Spezza and blasting the puck past Toskala from a sharp angle at 7:05.
Moore tied things up on a power play midway through the second period, when he collected a puck that squirted free from the corner between two Senators in front of the goal and whipped a backhander past Gerber, giving the Leafs more life.
"I don't think we were playing badly to that point but our team thrives on momentum and confidence," said Moore. "So getting that first goal and getting our feet under us was good."
Blake had a goal disallowed on another power play five minutes later, clearly kicking the puck in.
Toskala, in goal for the Leafs after back-to-back starts for Curtis Joseph, made his best stop of the night soon after, stoning Fisher on a partial break after a Jon Mitchell giveaway.
He finished with 30 saves.
"I felt good, especially the second and third," said Toskala.
Mitchell's promotion to the Leafs' top line with Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky did little to spark the towering wingers, who haven't been the same since Matt Stajan suffered a freak eye injury last weekend.
Gerber made his third straight start for the Senators and was solid in stopping 27 shots.
"Every time they had a bounce their way, they capitalized on it," said Gerber. "Overall, we played a hard game, we just couldn't get the puck into the net."
Notes: Over 450 military personnel and their families took in the game courtesy of the Maple Leafs. Messages from soldiers serving in Afghanistan were shown on the videoboard during stoppages in play. ... The Leafs also paid tribute to Don Sanderson of the Whitby Dunlops, who died Friday three weeks after hitting his head on the ice during a fight. Players from both teams tapped their sticks on the ice as Sanderson was shown on the videoboard. ... Still remaining for the Senators on their eight-game road trip are stops in New Jersey on Sunday, Buffalo on Tuesday and Boston on Thursday. Their next home game is Jan. 10 versus the New York Rangers. ... Defenceman Anton Volchenkov and forward Jesse Winchester returned to the Sens lineup. Defenceman Brendan Bell was a healthy scratch. ... The Leafs called up Kris Newbury to skate on the fourth line. Forwards Matt Stajan (eye), Andre Deveaux (foot) and Jeremy Williams (shoulder) were all scratched.