The Toronto Maple Leafs insist being so close to their first playoff appearance in nine years has nothing to do with their spotty play of late.
Their provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators, appear to be operating at full speed heading into Saturday night's game between the Northeast Division foes.
Toronto (24-15-5) is on the edge of removing the stigma of being the only team to not qualify for the playoffs since the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. A victory Saturday would clinch that postseason spot if Winnipeg loses in regulation earlier in the day.
The Maple Leafs, though, have dropped two consecutive games and were sloppy in a 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday night, leaving them one point ahead of the Senators for fifth in the Eastern Conference and two ahead of the Islanders. That defeat came after a 5-1 loss in Washington and a 13-shot performance in a 2-0 win over slumping New Jersey.
"We did a lot of reviewing between last night and this morning," coach Randy Carlyle said following practice Friday. "There were some things that were unacceptable in what we were doing. It's not panic, it's reality. We know we can play to a higher level than we've played in our last nine periods. It's the turnovers having us play in our zone too much."
As Toronto has sputtered, Ottawa (23-14-6) has surged to the verge of a playoff spot and is riding a four-game winning streak. The Senators ended the Capitals' eight-game win streak with a 3-1 victory Thursday night behind two goals from Kyle Turris, who ended a 13-game goalless drought.
"I thought this was the most complete game we've played in quite a while," coach Paul MacLean said after his team improved to 15-3-3 at home. "For the most part, that was a real solid game from start to finish from all of our players."
Additionally, the Senators are getting healthier down the stretch. Defenseman Jared Cowan, expected to miss the entire season with a hip injury, logged nearly 22 minutes Thursday in his second game back.
Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, who suffered a lacerated Achilles tendon Feb. 14 and was also expected to be sidelined for the season, practiced with the team Friday for the first time since the injury. While Karlsson was evasive on a potential return date, he was happy to take the next step in his comeback.
"It gave me some perspective on where I am right now," he said after practice Friday. "I tried to make it feel as normal as possible. It's good to be out there, receive some passes and make some passes. Skating with the guys is going to help me figure out where I am right now."
Toronto has outscored Ottawa 14-7 in winning three of four between the teams this season. Nazem Kadri had his second career hat trick in the most recent meeting, a 4-0 road win March 30 in which Joffrey Lupul scored the other goal and assisted on all three of Kadri's tallies.
Maple Leafs goaltenders James Reimer and Ben Scrivens each have a shutout this season versus Ottawa, with Reimer turning aside 31 shots in last month's win. He hasn't suffered consecutive regulation losses since Feb. 2-4.
Senators counterpart Craig Anderson, who will start this game, has conceded three goals in winning his last three games.
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