GAME: Ottawa Senators (43-23-10-6) at Toronto Maple Leafs (45-24-10-3).
TIME: Wednesday, 7 p.m. EDT.
The Ottawa Senators have absorbed criticism for years for underachieving in the postseason. They hope the changes made by general manager John Muckler will make a difference as they begin a new season against their provincial archrivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Senators were eliminated in the first round by the Maple Leafs during the 2003-04 playoffs, marking the fourth time in the last five postseasons the Maple Leafs have advanced at Ottawa's expense.
Muckler refused to stand pat and fired coach Jacques Martin, considered a stoic figure on the bench, with Bryan Murray, a more fiery leader who was responsible for building the 2003 Anaheim Mighty Ducks into a Stanley Cup finalist as a general manager.
"After spending some time with Bryan, I knew I had an experienced coach with energy, a passion for the game and a man with a great desire to win the Stanley Cup," Muckler said at the time of Murray's hiring in 2004.
On the ice, Muckler made two substantial changes to a team with a strong core. Before the lockout, he signed veteran goaltender Dominik Hasek, hoping the 40-year-old, six-time Vezina Trophy winner has the ability to show his 2002 form, when he backstopped the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup title.
Hasek, though, retired before the 2002-03 season and then unretired before playing just 14 games for the Red Wings in 2003-04 due to a groin injury.
The other move was a blockbuster deal before training camp, shipping Marian Hossa and defenseman Greg de Vries to the Atlanta Thrashers for Dany Heatley in a trade of premier right wings.
Muckler felt taking a risk on the 24-year-old Heatley was well worth it. The one-time 40-goal scorer had emotional issues staying in Atlanta following his one-car accident that led to the death of teammate Dan Snyder. Heatley gave the Senators some flexibility to sign defensemen Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara to long-term contracts.
For his part, Heatley has enjoyed a seamless on-ice transition playing on the top line alongside center Jason Spezza and rookie Brandon Bochenski. The trio combined for 15 goals and 26 assists during the preseason.
"I've played two world juniors with him so I kind of had a little idea what he was all about as a player and I knew he was a great guy. We had spent a lot of time together at those tournaments," Spezza said of Heatley. "(But) it's obviously nice to find chemistry right away."
Bochenski and Spezza were linemates during the lockout in Binghamton, where Spezza led the AHL with 120 points and Bochenski piled up 34 goals.
The Maple Leafs appear to be a team in transition because they were unable to keep most of their core players together due to the salary cap. Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk departed for Florida via free agency and were replaced by Eric Lindros and Jamie Allison, two centers trying to revive their careers after being injury-prone in previous stops with the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings, respectively.
Toronto still has center Mats Sundin, who needs 35 goals to reach 500 for his career, and 40-year-old goaltender Ed Belfour, who had a career-high 10 shutouts and added three more against the Senators in the 2004 playoffs.
Coach Pat Quinn also has some promising young players. Center Matt Stajan, who scored 14 goals during the 2003-04 season, has displayed the most promise. Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov, who combined for 22 goals, also will be counted on for offense.
2003-04 STANDINGS: Senators - 102 points, 3rd place, 2 PB, Northeast Division. Maple Leafs - 103 points, 2nd place, 1 PB, Northeast Division.
2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: Senators - Hossa, 36 goals and 82 points; Daniel Alfredsson, 48 assists; Chris Neil, 194 PIM. Maple Leafs - Sundin, 31 goals, 44 assists and 75 points; Tie Domi, 208 PIM.
2003-04 SPECIAL TEAMS: Senators - Power play: 21.5 percent (80 for 371), 1st in NHL. Penalty killing: 83.5 percent (290 for 347), 18th. Maple Leafs - Power play: 20.1 percent (75 for 373), 4th. Penalty killing: 83.4 percent (322 for 386), 19th.
2003-04 GOALTENDERS: Senators - Patrick Lalime (25-23-7, 5 SO, 2.29 GAA); Martin Prusek (16-6-3, 3, 2.12). Maple Leafs - Ed Belfour (34-19-6, 10, 2.13); Mikael Tellqvist (3-2-0, 0, 2.87).
2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Maple Leafs, 4-1-1.
LAST REGULAR SEASON MEETING: April 3, 2004, Maple Leafs 6-0. At Ottawa, Belfour turned aside 28 shots for his 10th shutout and Nieuwendyk scored a pair of second-period goals as the Maple Leafs ended any hopes of the Senators winning the Northeast Division title.
2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Senators - 20-15-5-1 on the road; Maple Leafs - 22-14-3-2 at home.