If hockey is indeed a game of mistakes, then the Ottawa Senators haven't had a bad year.
But then, neither have the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The once-vaunted "Battle of Ontario" - first downgraded to a skirmish, recently little more than slapping with wet noodles - had a chance to regain lost ground Saturday when both teams met at ScotiaBank Centre with something to play for.
In Toronto's case, the "faint hope" clause that kicks in each April as a handful of NHL teams have a slim chance of reaching the playoffs if only they cab grab every point within reach.
In Ottawa's case, pride after a dreadful season and jobs for next season. The Senators took to the ice with fully half the roster replaced since opening day, the latest being 22-year-old Stephane Da Costa of Paris, France and, up until two days earlier, the Merrimack College Warriors. (He managed to hit a post late in the third period.)
Coming off their best month of a bad year, the Senators had a chance to pound a stake through the chest protector, if not quite the heart, of their long-hated rival.
The Leafs entered the game in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with 82 points, two points back of Carolina Hurricanes and five points back of New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres, who held down the last two playoff spots.
A loss to Ottawa, therefore, would not have mathematically eliminated Toronto - but it might have done so psychologically.
"We're not worried about knocking guys out or being the spoiler," claimed Ottawa coach Cory Clouston, who has his own need of wins if he is to hang on to any job with the team.
"That's not our focus."
But, of course, it was the only focus to be had in Game 1168 of the NHL regular season schedule. A week from now, the 2010-2011 Ottawa Senators' season will be placed in a steel container and buried in a field behind the hockey rink. The Toronto Maple Leafs will either be alive or golfing.
A win, conceded Ottawa's only remaining star Jason Spezza, would be "a small victory for us."
A win might have seemed inconceivable, as five of the Senators five top players against the Leafs this year have either been dealt away (Mike Fisher, Alexei Kovalev) or are injured (Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar, Erik Karlsson).
Still, the one happy story of the season has been the play of recently arrived goaltender Craig Anderson, who was named player of the month of March prior to the anthem. His record with the Senators as sparkling as that of young James Reimer, the goaltending saviour of Toronto's past several weeks. Reimer, in fact, was named NHL rookie for the same month that Anderson was honoured.
In goaltending they seemed equal, but not quite in mistakes.
Ottawa's first major error came a dozen minutes into the opening period when Phil Kessel, he of the afterjets, burst up the right wing and, for reasons known only to him, defenceman Filip Kuba turned to his left - (ital)away(end ital) from the play - in an effort to check Kessel. With nothing but empty ice, Kessel roared in on Craig Anderson and, with time and a second attempt, put the Leafs up 1-0.
Toronto went ahead 2-0 early in the second period when Anderson himself committed a major faux pas, handing the puck behind his own net to Toronto rookie Nazem Kadri, who sent a pass out in front that clicked in off Anderson's skate as the Ottawa goaltender scrambled to get back into position. It was Kadri's third goal of the season.
The Leafs were not without their own mistakes, however. Defenceman Luke Schenn bobbled a puck on the blueline, allowing Spezza to break in alone on Reimer and score with a quick shot.
Ottawa was able to tie the game early in the third when Spezza, with his second of the night and 19th of the season, took a hard one-timer from above the left circle that beat Reimer.
The rally did not last long, however, as Ottawa once again provided opportunity when Joffrey Lupul was left unattended in front of the Ottawa net as various Leafs and Senators converged on the crease. He picked up a loose puck and casually fired it at the net, the puck ticking in off teammate Tyler Bozak.
"It was good to respond," said Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf.
Ottawa's Zack Smith took a rare five-minute boarding penalty for hammering into Matt Lashoff in the Toronto end, but the Leafs could manage nothing in their power play but frustration.
It was not until the dying minutes that Toronto was able to gain the victory they so desperately needed, when Nikolai Kulemin snapped home a high shot off a Clarke MacArthur pass to make it 4-2 Toronto.
Again, it was a play that grew out of an Ottawa mistake.
And the "faint hope" was still alive.
"We needed this one just like we needed the last couple," said Reimer, who stopped 23 of 25 points.
"And the ones coming up."
"We'll see what happens," added Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
After the dust settled on Saturday, Carolina maintained their two-point cushion after Saturday night's 4-2 win by the Hurricanes over the Islanders in Uniondale, N.Y. gave them 86 points. Meanwhile the Sabres picked up a valuable point in their 5-4 overtime loss to Washington in Buffalo, N.Y. to leapfrog past the Rangers and into seventh place in the Eastern Conference standing with 88 points.
Both Buffalo and Carolina each have a game in hand over the Leafs and the idle Rangers.Report Typo/Error