|Senators Matt Carkner fights Leafs Colton Orr in Ottawa Saturday night. (ERROL MCGIHON/QMI Agency)
OTTAWA — This chapter of the Battle of Ontario went from a war of attrition to a near re-staging of Custer’s Last Stand.
The Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, one decimated by injuries, the other by a flu bug, didn’t let any of the setbacks sap their fighting spirit, with the Leafs pulling out a 2-1 victory via shootout. Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin scored in the shootout, while Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson reached 10 wins as a rookie, stopping Alex Kovalev and Jason Spezza.
Toronto lost John Mitchell because of a possible concussion when his bell was rung by a Chris Neil hit, while Fredrik Sjostrom was favouring either his shoulder or wrist following a collision with Matt Carkner. There were fears Jamie Lundmark would join them after he was run into the boards by new Ottawa heavyweight defender Andy Sutton, but he returned.
With Mikhail Grabovski still out a few more days, the Leafs might need a forward tonight in Philadelphia as the only spare on the trip is extra defenceman Grant Exelby.
Mitchell was looking down when Neil planted his shoulder into him, but the Leafs questioned the head-hunting aspect of the check. Neil added insult to injury with a power-play goal at 17:03 of the first, when he got away from Dion Phaneuf to whack in a rebound of Spezza’s shot.
Penalty killing specialist Sjostrom joined Mitchell in the clinic in the second period. That gave Ottawa an edge in skaters after they opened the game one down because of a flu bug. How bad was it? Game-time scratches were Daniel Alfredsson (robbing the visiting fan mob from Toronto the chance to boo their least favourite Senator), defenceman Filip Kuba and centre Peter Regin. Coach Cory Clouston’s wish to come back with Brian Elliott in goal after Pascal Leclaire came unglued in Carolina a couple of nights earlier were dashed as well with Elliott woozy.
With Sjostrom and Mitchell out, usually mild mannered Leafs such as Rickard Wallin, Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Carl Gunnarsson joined Colton Orr and Dion Phaneuf in throwing their weight around.
The Senators called up centre Zack Smith from their farm team in Glens Falls, N.Y., but he had to drive in and his progress north was followed breathlessly by the local media until he arrived late in the first period to bring the Sens up to 20 men.
“I’ve never had it like this,” Clouston said of the epidemic. “It’s impossible to contain. We fly to Carolina and fly back in close proximity and get dressed together ... it’s impossible. You try and take precautions and not share water bottles.”
It was six years ago that a similar virus swamped the Sens in a home game against the Leafs, when they had taken a 4-0 lead. By the game’s end, only a few players remained on the bench and Toronto came back and won.
Kessel had a quiet finish at the Olympics for Team USA and had not scored in three games prior, but broke out with Toronto’s regulation-time goal on a far-side wrist shot. Ottawa was looking to reverse a two-game losing streak, with Clouston urging his team not to take the 29th-place Leafs too lightly.
“I think it’s more dangerous (than facing a playoff team) some times,” Clouston said. “They have young guys who are here to impress. They come with a lot of energy and they showed that in Boston (a 3-2 shootout loss) and caused a lot of chaos.”