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GAME: Ottawa Senators (43-23-10-6) at Toronto Maple Leafs (45-24-10-3).
PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference quarterfinals; Game 1.
TIME: Thursday, 7 p.m. EDT.
The Ottawa Senators came within one win of reaching the Stanley Cup finals last season.
To advance further this year, they'll first have to knock off a Northeast Division rival they've never beaten in the postseason.
The Senators renew their playoff rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs when the clubs meet in the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
Ottawa, which won the Presidents' Trophy last season, nearly overcame a 3-1 series deficit before losing to eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey in a seven-game Eastern Conference finals.
After some early struggles this season, the Senators regained the form that had many observers predicting a berth in the Stanley Cup finals.
"We want to win the Stanley Cup," Ottawa general manager John Muckler said. "If you can't talk about it, then you can't win it. We feel we have an opportunity. Whether it's going to happen or not, only time will tell, but we feel good about our team."
The Senators didn't face the Maple Leafs, their postseason nemesis, last year. Ottawa lost to Toronto in the quarterfinals in 2000 and 2001, and fell to the Leafs in seven games in the semifinals in 2002.
Ottawa has become one of the NHL's elite teams since those defeats. With their skilled and speedy forwards, the Senators led the NHL with 262 goals this season, one year after topping the Eastern Conference.
Marian Hossa, Daniel Alfredsson, Martin Havlat, Jason Spezza and late-season acquisition Peter Bondra form one of the league's most dangerous group of forwards, with each player scoring more than 20 goals this season. Also, defensemen Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara and Chris Phillips combined for 40 goals and 57 assists.
All that offense, however, may not matter if the Senators can't get their goaltending stabilized. Ottawa may have to rely on backup Martin Prusek instead of Patrick Lalime, who has a sprained left knee. Even before getting injured, Lalime didn't have nearly as good a season as he did last year, when he recorded 39 wins and eight shutouts.
Lalime practiced Wednesday morning but Martin refused to name his starter and even said that if Lalime wasn't healthy enough to play, the Senators would call up Ray Emery to serve as Prusek's backup.
"It feels good, but we'll see how it is (Thursday)," said Lalime. "If it's ready to go, I'll go and if it's not, I won't. It's about what I feel."
By contrast, Toronto has plenty of confidence in its goaltending. Ed Belfour had shutouts in the Leafs' final two regular-season games and finished with 10, as well as a 2.13 goals-against average.
The Maple Leafs will need Belfour at his best against the speedy Senators. Ottawa may try to use its skating to wear down Toronto, the NHL's oldest club and not one of its fastest.
Forwards Mats Sundin (33), Joe Nieuwendyk (37), Gary Roberts (37) and Owen Nolan (32) give the Leafs a wealth of playoff experience - along with a lot of age.
Toronto also added veterans near the trading deadline, picking up 41-year-old center Ron Francis and 36-year-old defenseman Brian Leetch in deals and coaxing 37-year-old defenseman Calle Johansson out of retirement.
Perhaps the main reason for the Leafs' postseason domination of the Senators has been their physical style. Toronto is likely to try that approach again, and have the players to do it with Roberts, Nolan, Tie Domi and Bryan Marchment.
The Senators have made moves to bulk up for the postseason in recent years, supplementing physical defensemen Chara and Redden with forwards such as Chris Neil and Vaclav Varada, and defensemen Todd Simpson and Greg de Vries, who was picked up from the New York Rangers at the trading deadline in March.
"We've said it from the start: The club that can handle that best, remain disciplined and remain focused on the task at hand will be successful," Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson said. "We're confident it will be our club."
The play of Francis could be critical if the Leafs are to advance. Sundin, Toronto's top center and leading scorer, is certain to face Ottawa's top defensemen in Chara, Redden and Phillips most of the time. That strategy has worked before against the Leafs, so they'll need production from Francis, fourth on the NHL's career scoring list.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Senators - 102 points, 5th seed; Maple Leafs - 103 points, 4th seed.
TEAM LEADERS: Senators - Hossa, 36 goals and 82 points; Alfredsson, 48 assists; Neil, 194 PIM. Maple Leafs - Sundin, 31 goals, 44 assists and 75 points; Domi, 208 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senators - Power play: 21.6 percent (80 for 370), 21.6 in NHL. Penalty killing: 83.6 percent (290 for 347), 18th. Canucks - Power play: 14.9 percent (56 for 376), 22nd. Penalty killing: 83.4 percent (322 for 386), 20th.
GOALTENDERS: Senators - Lalime (25-23-7, 5 SO, 2.29 GAA); Prusek (16-6-3, 3, 2.12). Maple Leafs - Belfour (34-19-6, 10, 2.13); Trevor Kidd (6-5-2, 1, 3.26).
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Maple Leafs, 4-1-1. Toronto punctuated its victory in the series with a 6-0 win Saturday in the teams' season finale. Toronto's domination of the Senators came after it won just three times in the previous 16 meetings. Lalime went 0-3 with 3.80 GAA against Toronto this season, while Belfour went 3-0-1 with a 0.98 and a shutout in the series.
|Apr 08 '04||OTT 4 at TOR 2||M. Hossa|
|Apr 10 '04||OTT 0 at TOR 2||G. Roberts|
|Apr 12 '04||TOR 2 at OTT 0||J. Nieuwendyk|
|Apr 14 '04||TOR 1 at OTT 4||M. Hossa|
|Apr 16 '04||OTT 0 at TOR 2||T. Domi|
|Apr 18 '04||TOR 1 at OTT 2 - OT||M. Fisher|
|Apr 20 '04||OTT 1 at TOR 4||J. Nieuwendyk|