Game Preview #51 - Senators vs Leafs

 

On an unseasonably warm winter day, the Toronto Maple Leafs (26-19-6) will meet the Ottawa Senators (27-20-7) in the nations capital. The weather outside gives the impression that the playoffs are about to begin, and with these two teams it's not only the weather that makes tonight's encounter resemble post-season hockey. The Leafs sit three points behind the Senators for the 6th spot in the Eastern Conference with three games in hand on the sputtering Sens. Toronto has won three of their last four games, and have points in all four of those games. On the other hand Ottawa enters tonight's match-up having lost their last five games, including a 2-1 overtime loss on Long Island last night. These two teams squared off at the Air Canada Centre January 17th in a game that the Senators prevailed 3-2 in. Following that game many people thought that the Senators had put the Leafs in their rear view mirror and were assured a playoff position. The Leafs have recovered from that game and at the moment seem to be the stronger of the two teams. 

Toronto will turn to James Reimer once again following his shutout victory the other night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Reimer had his first NHL start in the same arena last season, as the Leafs steamrolled the Sens 5-1. The door has once again opened for Reimer to become the Leafs #1 goalie, and many people (myself included) expect him to seize the moment and carry the Leafs through to the end of the season. The Leafs will ice the same lineup that defeated the Penguins on Wednesday, meaning defenseman Mike Komisarek will once again watch tonight's game from the pressbox. While it goes without saying that every single one of the Leafs' remaining 31 games are crucial, tonight's game carries a little more importance. Should the Leafs defeat the Senators in regulation they will have a prime chance to put another team between themselves and their first post-season in eight calender years. 

The reunited trio of Nikolai Kulemin (0 goals, 5 assists) Mikhail Grabovski (3 goals, 5 assists) and Clarke MacArthur (4 goals, 2 assists) have been on fire in their last three games. This resurgence from the top producing line of the Leafs' 2010-11 season, has come alive at the right time as the duo of Joffrey Lupul (1 goal in 10 games) and Phil Kessel (3 goals in 10 games) have endured their worst stretch of the current campaign. Look for the Leafs to attack at will tonight as both of these teams play a wide open run and gun style that is highly entertaining, but highly dangerous as well. The Senators will start goalie Craig Anderson for the 23rd consecutive game tonight. The Sens' #1 has looked shaky during this rough spell in their season, particularly when he allowed the winning goal from centre ice on Tuesday in Boston. Anderson has had some ups and downs versus the Leafs this season being pulled in the teams' first meeting on October 8th, while also making stopping 35 shots on January 17th as he single-handedly defeated the Leafs in that game. 

With these two teams fighting tooth and nail for the playoffs the battle of Ontario rivalry has been revived. Tonight's match-up may have added intensity following this dirty hit by Senators forward Nick Foligno low bridge hit on Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf last game. As always when these two teams meet the physicality and emotion may get out of hand, so be prepared for an ultra competitive playoff type game between these two old enemies. I know I can't wait. 

Lineups

Leafs

Forwards

Lupul - Bozak - Kessel 
Kulemin - Grabovski - MacArthur 
Crabb - Connolly - Lombardi 
Brown - Steckel - Armstrong

Defense

Gunnarsson - Phaneuf 
Gardiner - Schenn 
Liles - Franson

Goalies

Reimer
Gustavsson

Senators

Forwards

Condra - Spezza - Michalek
Foligno - Turris  - Alfredsson 
Greening - Smith - Neil
Daugavins - Konopka - O'Brien

Defense

Kuba - Karlsson 
Cowen - Gonchar 
Phillips - Carkner

Goalies

Anderson
Auld

Players to Watch

LeafsNikolai Kulemin - The Leafs hard nosed, two-way winger has experienced a trying season. For the first time though his offensive confidence seems to be returning. With five assists in his last three games look for the Russian sniper to continue his excellent play tonight. He's due for a goal scoring explosion.

SenatorsJason Spezza - Having shut down two of the hottest centres in their last four games (John Tavares and Evgeny Malkin), the Leafs will look to continue their defensive renaissance tonight against the Mississauga born Spezza. Having scored a controversial goal in the last meeting Ottawa's top line pivot will look to make his boyhood team pay tonight. 

Game Time: 7:00 at the Scotiabank Place. TV - CBC. Radio - AM640.