TORONTO - Four camoflauged soldiers arrived down ropes dangling from the Air Canada Centre ceiling, and that was only the start of a strange brew of NHL hockey Saturday night.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, 14th in the Eastern Conference and now ranked as Stanley Cup contenders only by players' wives and close kin, emerged with a 4-2 decision despite the absence of many regulars and forward lines full of AHL call-ups.
The Ottawa Senators, dealing with injury woes of their own, looked nothing like the club that cruised along for months atop the East. Coach John Paddock complained afterwards of a lack of grit. Paddock's team, 3-7 in their last 10, could find themselves no better than fourth by the end of the week since the red-hot Montreal Canadiens have closed to within three points and play the slumping Sens twice in the next six days.
The evening ended with 200 Canadian Forces personnel - the four on the ropes among them - lying and standing on the ice for photos, and with oft-injured defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo delivering a pledge.
"We're not giving up in here," said the Toronto-born blue-liner, who scored the winner in only his eighth appearance of the season. "We're a determined bunch and we're going to continue playing right to the end."
The tapper into an open net at 4:28 of the third period was set up by a neat back-to-the-net pass from one Robbie Earl, who picked up his first NHL point in his debut.
Earl, who started playing hockey on in-line skates while growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, was Toronto's fourth pick, 187th overall, in the 2004 entry draft. He'll be back with the AHL Marlies when some of the walking wounded suit up again, but he's living in the moment for now.
"I think I settled the nerves down a little bit and was able to be at least effective out there," he said.
He sure was. Dominic Moore, Earl and Boyd Devereaux comprised the most effective line all night. Yes, the MED's line rescued the limping Leafs. Moore and Devereaux have bounced around.
Moore, who is from Thornhill just north of the city, was ecstatic to get his first goal as a Leaf during a Hockey Night In Canada broadcast. The Leafs claimed him off waivers from the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 10.
"It's nice to be home and to be able to acknowledge the people of Toronto after the game," Moore said after being named the game's first star. "I take pride in my versatility and whatever way I can help out I'm happy to do.
"That I was able to pitch in is something that I'm happy about."
Moore, who has to be among the most polite hockey players in the world, and Jiri Tlusty staked Toronto to an early lead. Ottawa tied it on goals by Nick Foligno late in the first and by Chris Neil early in the third. Colaiacovo and Jason Blake put the Leafs ahead to stay.
There wasn't a Leaf in the penalty box all night since all six minors were assessed to the Senators, including a high-sticking, boarding and tripping triple to Andrej Meszaros.
"They played well defensively," Jason Spezza said of the Leafs. "It's tough to explain why they get (six) power plays and we get none, but that's something that's out of our control.
"It's tough to beat a team when they carry the momentum like that."
Spezza twice gave the puck away with telegraphed cross-ice passes, and without injured teammates Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley had as much impact as a feather on glass.
Ray Emery gave up too many rebounds and was outplayed by Vesa Toskala.
"(The Leafs) deserved to win," said Mike Fisher, who was 1-for-8 on faceoffs.
The Leafs are five points behind the ninth-place Atlanta Thrashers. They play at home Tuesday against Florida, are in Montreal on Thursday and are back home to face Detroit on Saturday. It's an uphill struggle but, as Colaiacovo pledged, they are not giving up.
Notes: Toronto had a 26-21 shots advantage ... The Leafs, ranked 28th on power plays, managed only one goal - the shot by Tlusty - on their six chances ... Toronto won 32 of the 53 faceoffs (60 per cent) ... D Bryan McCabe (broken hand) missed a 21st consecutive game. It'll be at least two more weeks before McCabe can play again. The Leafs also were without F Nik Antropov (suspension), RW Alex Steen (dislocated shoulder), LW Alexei Ponikarovsky (dislocated shoulder), LW Chad Kilger (personal reasons), F Mark Bell (broken orbital bone) and C John Pohl (sprained ankle) ... The Senators were missing C Alfredsson (hip flexor), RW Heatley (dislocated shoulder) and RW Patrick Eaves (shoulder/neck) ... Mats Sundin needed one point to become the 30th player with at least 1,300, and he didn't get it ... Tomas Kaberle's 23 minutes 16 seconds topped Leafs ice time. Wade Redden's 23:08 was most for a Senator.