Fork in road could put fork in Leafs

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:27 AM ET

OTTAWA -- The National Hockey League season is a long and winding road. A road with forks.

And this weekend's doubleheader in Ottawa could represent one of those forks for both teams -- the Maple Leafs and the Senators.

Neither has been playing particularly well lately, but that's a relative evaluation. What classifies as "not particularly well" for the Senators would be a hot streak for today's Leafs.

But Senators general manager John Muckler knows that these are the dog days of an NHL season and he's hoping that the presence of the reviled Leafs will arouse his team and get it back into first place, a position that has been conceded to the Carolina Hurricanes.

If you live in Toronto, you might be excused for thinking that the Leafs are the only team in hockey to encounter injury woes. But the Senators have had them, too.

They lost Jason Spezza for the better part of a month and got him back into the lineup only on Thursday. Martin Havlat, the key to the Senators' second line, is on a four-month hiatus because of shoulder surgery and isn't expected back until April.

The Senators called up Brian Bochenski, who appeared to be an adequate replacement, but he, too, got injured and has been out for a month. Even captain Daniel Alfredsson was out for a week.

Like the Leafs, the Senators lost one of their two top defencemen in Wade Redden. He was out for 10 games.

As a result of all this, the Senators barely are over .500 in the past month.

But few things revive the Senators as much as a visit from the Leafs and the team is taking a longer-term view.

"We have a bigger goal in mind," Alfredsson said yesterday, "not just beating the Leafs."

To the Senators, this season could represent the kind of opportunity that may never again present itself.

Redden and Zdeno Chara, the heart of the defence corps, both are coming up to free agency. As a result, they may be too expensive for the frugal Senators, who have decided that their fans don't warrant the maximum expenditure under the salary cap.

Dominik Hasek, the all-world goalie, will be 40 in a week and as Leafs fans know, goaltenders of that age can slow down in a hurry.

So if the Senators are to win the Stanley Cup -- and they feel they can -- what better time than now? And if their constant nemesis in the playoffs is the Maple Leafs, what better way to avoid that potential confrontation than by knocking the Leafs out of the playoffs in mid-season?

A double victory for the Senators this weekend wouldn't do that. But it probably would knock the Leafs out of a playoff position for the time being, and further damage the team's brittle psyche.

As a result, this series could be just as much of a turning point for the Leafs as it could be for the Senators.

Their losing streak has stretched to four games and they have lost all four games against the Senators this season -- the past two by embarrassing scores.

If they were to snap back and win both of these -- on the road and despite being short-staffed -- it could revitalize them in a way that nothing else could.

To do that, they would have to stay out of the penalty box. They would have to play intelligent hockey. They might even have to win a fight or two. And in recent weeks, none of those things has happened.

But the Leafs have a history of knocking off the Senators at times when the odds were strongly stacked against them.

The fork in the road is ahead of them. If they end up taking the wrong path, they could find it very difficult to get back on the straight and narrow.


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