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Battle of Ontario suddenly means a little more with Leafs back in playoff race

The Toronto Maple Leafs have charged back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference and Saturday night's game against the red-hot Ottawa Senators should be a doozy (7 p.m. ET). "Yeah, they're playing great right now," Senators centre Jason Spezza said Friday. "They're fighting for a playoff spot and we're fighting for a position in the standings and we're also playing well.

"So we anticipate a pretty competitive game tomorrow."

The Leafs, left for dead by some a few weeks back, are only two points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference after winning six of their last eight games (6-2-0). The Senators have caught Montreal for fourth in the conference by going a scorching 13-3-1 in their last 17 games.

Something has to give Saturday.

"They're a great team," Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft said Friday in Toronto. "They've got a lot of skill up front. It comes down to not taking penalties and playing solid D. If we ice (the puck) 100 times (Saturday night) it doesn't matter. We can ice it all night and win a few faceoffs and keep icing it if that's what it takes to win.

"We need to go in with that mentality - play a tough road game and keep it close and try to win 2-1 rather than trying to blow them out by trading chances with them all night."

The Sens, you can be sure, have noticed the Leafs' surge.

"They are playing very well," Senators head coach Bryan Murray said after practice. "I'd like to think we're playing comparable. It should be an interesting game. Both of us have to also worry about all the other teams that are contenders in the East."

As Murray alluded to, only eight points separate Montreal and Ottawa (62 points) from the 11th-place New York Islanders (54 points) with the Leafs sitting ninth at 56 points. With nine weeks to go in the regular season, it's anyone's guess who will make it and who won't.

Adding more spice to the final 30 games of the season is the fact that the Senators, Leafs and Canadiens all play each other three times each before the end of the season, starting with Saturday's Leafs-Sens game. Ottawa and Montreal have a home-and-home next Thursday and Saturday.

"Those are my two favourite (road) buildings to play in, Montreal and Toronto," said Spezza. "They'll be pretty exciting games, we're playing them a lot coming up. Every time the Canadian teams are involved in a race like this I think it's good for the game."

While the Leafs and Senators are charging, the Habs are trying to stay afloat. They've appeared to come out of a month-long funk by grabbing seven out of a possible 10 points in their last five games, including Monday's 3-1 win at home over the Senators.

The head-to-head matchups between the three Canadian clubs will have a major impact on the final standings.

"It should be real interesting and fun," said Murray. "And you like to see that. ... Certainly with Toronto playing they way they are and Montreal coming up next week, we're going to have a couple of real competitive games with them, I think it's good. I think it's great for the fans in particular."

Everyone in the triumvirate has another team's number. The Leafs have had the better of Montreal this season, going 3-0-2. The Habs have topped the Sens so far, going 3-1-1, while Ottawa has owned Toronto at 4-1-0.

In fact, the Senators are 11-2-0 against the Leafs in the post-lockout world under Murray, going 7-1-0 last season.

"I think last year we had an awfully good hockey team here, we scored a lot of goals," Murray said in trying to explain his team's dominance in the Battle of Ontario. "Things have changed somewhat this year. They pounded us pretty good in the first game here. Beyond that, I think they're improving and I don't know that history means an awful lot. I really don't. I think you have to look at the individual game.

"There's nothing particular that we do against them that we don't try to do against the other teams."

Redden also downplayed the one-sided rivalry of late with the Leafs, not wanting to provide bulletin board fodder.

"I think we've caught them when they've either been banged up or in a downward spiral," said Redden.

"But both teams are playing well," he added. "Add to the fact that crowd will be charged right up, and that always adds to the game, too. When they're playing well and rolling, they're a tough team."

The Leafs have followed in the footsteps of the Senators in their recent success, playing better defensively. And for both clubs the change came because of injuries.

"We've made a point the last few weeks of being more responsible with our sticks and not take the hooking penalties 200 feet away and move our feet and skate," said Raycroft. "We've done a good job of that. There's definitely been a concerted effort to get better at it."

Now the Sens are fully healthy but want to maintain that defensively discipline.

"I think every coach wants his team to tighten up and be responsible," said Murray. "To do that you have to get goaltending and they're getting goaltending. We are as well. We've very comparable in that area. The other part is that it looks like they're healthy on the blue-line for the most part. So goals are much more difficult to come by at this stage of the year."

Notes: The Sens, in a classy move, allowed goalie Martin Gerber to join his former Carolina teammate in Washington on Friday as the defending Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes had a White House visit with U.S. President Bush. "You want to make sure that a player that achieves the ultimate of winning a Stanley Cup has the opportunity to receive that recognition," said Murray. "For them to able to go and gather a number of their players from last year for that visit, I felt it was very important for Martin to be able to go to. He'll be back tonight at some point." . . . Ray Emery will start in goal for Ottawa on Saturday . . . Mike Comrie on playing with the Senators: "I haven't had this much fun playing hockey in a long time." . . . The Leafs and Habs play April 7 at Air Canada Centre, the last game of the regular season for both clubs.


with files from CP Sportswriter Neil Stevens in Toronto.



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