Age before beauty, eh!

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:38 PM ET


 OTTAWA -- The old boys club -- maybe they've become the infinitesimal difference between the Maple Leafs and the often breathtaking Ottawa Senators.

 When they needed a save last night, Ed Belfour, eight days from his 39th birthday, made it.

 When they needed a goal, Joe Nieuwendyk, at age 37, scored on a pass from the 41-year-old Ron Francis.

 In Game 2, it was Gary Roberts, 38 next month, scoring when it mattered. And always there is Brian Leetch, who at 36 and only a month as a Leaf, is their top defenceman.

 "That experience is invaluable for us," said Tom Fitzgerald, the Leafs veteran fourth-liner. "You see who make the plays when it matters most and you see a difference."

 A tiny hairline of a difference.

 When asked about his own play, Nieuwendyk praised Belfour. When asked about his night, Belfour praised Nieuwendyk. When asked about the play on the winning goal in a 2-0 victory, Francis pointed to Nieuwendyk and Belfour.

 Nobody was taking credit for a Maple Leafs win that shouldn't have been. But there was certainly enough to pass around.

 "A lot of it comes down to a bounce and a break," Francis said.

 It is not coincidental that the bounces and the breaks are being forced by Belfour and Nieuwendyk and Roberts and Mats Sundin, the only one of this bunch without a Stanley Cup ring.

 The kids may be all right with the Senators, but the veterans they have turned to at trading time have made little difference. Peter Bondra has yet to make an appearance in the series. Bryan Smolinski, last year's prize pickup, was victimized on Sundin's game-clinching goal.

 Marian Hossa, who was outshot by the Leafs 17-10 last night, can't do everything himself, although he's certainly having an impact. He and Daniel Alfredsson seem to be everywhere but they have gone two games without goals and so have the Sens.

 INSTRUMENTAL ROLES

 A thousand scoring chances in two games and nothing to show for it. It may not be mere coincidence that the Maple Leafs lineup is dotted with players who have played instrumental roles on Stanley Cup winning teams and the Senators have none. Oh, Greg De Vries and Curtis Leschyshyn own rings, but they were not significant players on their championship teams.

 The way Nieuwendyk has been three times. The way Francis was twice. The way Belfour was in Dallas and Roberts in Calgary and Leetch when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy in New York.

 This is what John Ferguson, the rookie general manager, had in mind when he picked up Francis from Carolina and Leetch from the Rangers and signed the 'I'm not playing anywhere but Toronto' Nieuwendyk as a free agent in his first days on the job.

 The Maple Leafs have a 2-1 lead in the series and conceivably could be trailing three games to nothing.

 The Senators have been that sharp. They have outshot the Leafs and spent more time in Toronto territory, but they don't have the veteran finish, that unwritten guide to finding a way to do the little things right in the playoffs.

 Francis battles somebody named Brian Pothier along the boards, emerges with the puck, leading to the first Leafs goal. Sundin overwhelms Smolinski on the second. Patrick Lalime did what Belfour hasn't done --let in a weak goal when it mattered most.

 Playoff savvy. Veteran savvy. Ottawa has more speed and finesse and frankly, better players. The Leafs have more gray hair and more rings.

 And for now, they own a one-game lead. "We'll take it," said Francis. "A win is a win."


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