When the Toronto Maple Leafs meet the Ottawa Senators on Sunday, it will be for more than provincial bragging rights.
Amazingly, the Ontario rivals are two of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference.
Milan Michalek scored in a shootout as Senators won their fifth straight game Saturday, once again in dramatic fashion, 5-4 over the New York Rangers.
The Senators are making a habit of heart-pounding comebacks. They won two straight home games with goals in the final minute of regulation before staging a third-period comeback against New York.
“What we did at home is one thing,” Senators coach Paul MacLean said. “Being down by three goals late, showing some resilience coming back and getting two points, doing it on the road, those are the kind of building blocks we can lean on.”
Meanwhile, the Leafs remained undefeated in regulation at home with a 4-3 win over the league-leading Pittsburgh Penguins. Toronto sits in first place atop the Northeast Division.
Few would have predicted this game would have been more than a simple renewing of provincial rivalries when the season started a couple weeks back, but the Leafs and Sens have done a good job of proving their detractors wrong so far.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think it matters what anyone thinks at the start of the year,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. “The bottom line is that everyone’s got zeros across the board. It’s how you do from when you have zeros (that matters).”
Elsewhere in the NHL it was: Vancouver 7 Washington 4; Tampa Bay 1 Winnipeg 0; Montreal 4 Boston 2; Florida 3 Buffalo 2; Philadelphia 5 Carolina 1; San Jose 3 New York Islanders 2 (OT); Minnesota 1 Detroit 0; Nashville 3 Anaheim 0; Dallas 3 New Jersey 1; Chicago 5 Columbus 2; and Phoenix 3 Los Angeles 2 (OT).
At Toronto, Phaneuf continued his talismanic play for the Leafs. He had two assists, hammered Penguins star Evgeni Malkin with a big bodycheck and logged a team-high 27:23 in ice time.
“Personally, I think by a country mile he’s the best defenceman in the league,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said of Phaneuf. “It’s not even close right now. His numbers show that—his plus-minus, we chart scoring chances and his numbers are off the chart there. I think he’s comfortable in his own skin, he’s comfortable being the captain and he’s healthy.”
It was a fitting performance with Mats Sundin watching from a couple rows behind the Leafs bench. The longtime captain hadn’t attended a game at Air Canada Centre since retiring in 2009 and saw a team that has finally ushered in a new era. Sundin came in the dressing room following the game to shake each player’s hand.
There was a celebratory tone to the occasion thanks to the opportunistic Phil Kessel, who beat Brent Johnson at 10:08 of the third period with the game-winner. The league-leading 10th goal came after Tim Connolly found his linemate on the rush and Kessel flashed his quick release.
“You could see that whole thing develop,” said Wilson. “Phil’s eyes were as big as saucers when he saw the gap. Timmy didn’t even hesitate—he fired it right over with a perfect pass.”
Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur also had goals for Toronto (7-2-1), which visits the rival Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.
Matt Cooke, Chris Kunitz and Malkin replied for the weary Penguins (8-3-2).
Not only were they playing for the 13th time in 26 days, they had to do so without a number of top players. Jordan Staal is sidelined with an undisclosed lower-body injury, Sidney Crosby continues to recover from a concussion and No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury watched from the bench while Johnson made his fourth appearance of the season.
“We weren’t able to play 60 minutes the way we should,” said defenceman Kris Letang. “That’s why we didn’t get a win tonight.”
At New York, Jason Spezza scored two of Ottawa’s third-period goals and Michalek tied the game with 2:50 left in regulation for the surging Senators, who kept New York winless at the refurbished Madison Square Garden.
“We’ve come back a few times this season and it shows strength in our team,” Michalek said.
Raners coach John Tortorella broke up his top line that featured Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik and got positive results. Richards scored twice, off assists from Gaborik when they spent brief moments together, and added an assist. Gaborik had a goal and two assists for the Rangers, who turned around a 1-0 deficit and led 4-1 with 11:55 remaining in regulation.
Spezza started the rally with an even-strength goal at 9:18 and a power-play goal 3:31 later after Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was injured when New York’s Wojtek Wolski hit himand was given a penalty for an illegal check to the head.
That set the stage for Michalek’s tying goal that sucked the life out of the crowd that was poised for celebration moments earlier. New York won three of four after an 0-1-2 start, but has earned only one point in two home games since.
“We didn’t get the job done,” Tortorella said. “It’s on us to keep working. Some of the details of our game are still weak and until we get that solid foundation of the details we will sputter.”
Canucks 7 Capitals 4
At Vancouver, Alex Edler scored his first two goals of the season and added an assist to lead the Canucks past Washington.
Lightning 1 Jets 0
At Tampa, Fla., Dwayne Roloson made 28 saves in his 29th career shutout and Vincent Lecavalier scored a power-play goal late in the second period for the Lightning.
Canadiens 4 Bruins 2
At Montreal, Brian Gionta and David Desharnais scored power-play goals and Carey Price made 26 saves as the Canadiens extended their winning streak to three with a win over Boston.
Panthers 3 Sabres 2
At Buffalo, N.Y., Jason Garrison’s goal snapped a third-period tie and lifted Florida over the Sabres.
Flyers 5 Hurricanes 1
At Philadelphia, Jaromir Jagr scored two goals and Ilya Bryzgalov rebounded strong in net from a string of bad games to lead the Flyers.
Sharks 3 Islanders 2 (OT)
At Uniondale, N.Y., Brent Burns scored a power-play goal 1:07 into overtime to give surging San Jose a victory over the Islanders.
Wild 1 Red Wings 0
At St. Paul, Minn., Josh Harding made 36 saves and Dany Heatley scored to lift the Wild to a victory over slumping Detroit.
Predators 3 Ducks 0
At Nashville, Tenn., Pekka Rinne made 20 saves for the Predators in his 100th career win.
Stars 3 Devils 1
At Dallas, Vernon Fiddler scored the go-ahead goal on a fortunate bounce with 8:26 remaining to send the Stars to a victory over New Jersey.
Blackhawks 5 Blue Jackets 2
At Chicago, Viktor Stalberg scored his first two goals of the season just 1:58 apart early in the third period to snap a tie, and the Blackhawks beat the struggling Blue Jackets.
Coyotes 3 Kings 2 (OT)
At Glendale, Ariz., Daymond Langkow scored in overtime to give Phoenix a victory over Los Angeles.