TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs don’t have many highlights they can point to in this dismal season but forward Matt Stajan feels Thursday’s matchup versus the Ottawa Senators certainly provides the opportunity for a big one.
A victory over their free-falling rivals would put a big question mark on the playoff hopes of the Senators, who need three out of four points in their final two games to clinch a trip to the post-season.
Should they lose in Toronto, they would be left needing the help of others to make the big dance.
“Yeah, we’re excited in here to play that game,” Stajan said after practice Wednesday. “We could take the wind out of Ottawa, that would be a maybe a bright spot on the season that hasn’t been particularly the way we wanted it to go. We’re going to be ready to play and I think they’re going to be ready to play. It’s their season on the line.”
The Maple Leafs are 4-2-1 versus the Senators this season, winning the last four meetings, but were eliminated from the playoff race after a loss to Boston last week.
That was no big surprise, as they’d been wildly inconsistent all season. For the Senators to be in the position they’re in is stunning, especially considering they opened the season 15-2.
“You’ve watched them slide and the way the NHL is, the parity there is unbelievable,” said Stajan. “Hopefully we can do the job (Thursday) and make it happen and knock them out. If they didn’t make the playoffs, the city of Ottawa would be similar to here the way everything’s been going.”
Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice is glad to have another carrot to use with his team. Motivation can be hard to find in the waning days of a playoff-less season, but hurting the cause of a hated rival works well.
“It’s nice to have something to fire them up,” said Maurice. “I’ve been very, very worried the last two games that we’ve played, with missing the guys we’re missing and the emotions usually right after you get knocked out, that those next three or four games are pretty ugly.
“I think we’ve skated pretty well and it’d be nice to get into that game (Thursday) night knowing that it’s going to be a competition.”
The Maple Leafs will be without their two best forwards, captain Mats Sundin (groin) and Nik Antropov (knee), who were both officially shut down for the season Wednesday.
That will give youngsters like Jiri Tlusty, Jeremy Williams and Kris Newbury up front plus defencemen Anton Stralman and Staffan Kronvall a chance to play more minutes.
“I like the way we’ve skated and the way they’ve played,” said Maurice. “It’s a good opportunity for those guys to go out and show what they can do.”
Vesa Toskala will start in goal versus the Senators while Andrew Raycroft will play the season finale in Montreal on Saturday.