TORONTO – Two points never felt so good for the Ottawa Senators.
Antoine Vermette had his first career hat trick as the Sens inched closer to a playoff berth, scoring three short-handed goals in an 8-2 clobbering of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
The Senators can clinch a playoff spot with at least one point Friday night when they close out the regular season at home to Boston.
Ottawa might possibly have to play that game without captain Daniel Alfredsson, who left Thursday’s game with what the team called an upper body injury following a thunderous hit at the hands of Toronto’s Mark Bell. The Senators also lost forward Mike Fisher to a knee injury earlier in the game.
The injuries were the low points of an otherwise glorious night for Ottawa. Dany Heatley had a pair of goals while Dean McAmmond, Cody Bass and Jason Spezza also scored for the Senators, who were under intense scrutiny from fans and media in Ottawa this week for their late-season tumble down the standings.
A loss on Thursday night would have left the Sens dangling on the playoff bubble. But the win kept Ottawa in sixth place in the Eastern Conference at 94 points, three ahead of ninth-place Philadelphia. Boston and Washington occupy the last two playoff spots at 92 points. The Capitals moved ahead of the Flyers after a 4-1 win over Tampa Bay on Thursday night.
Bell and Dominic Moore scored for the Leafs, who fittingly ended their home schedule with a thorough beating in their third consecutive season outside of the playoffs.
Fans in Toronto had got excited about Thursday’s game, hoping to inflict some pain on their hated provincial rivals. Instead, the Senators recovered from a slow start and played one of their best games since the all-star break, looking one step ahead of the Leafs all night long.
Vesa Toskala got shelled in the Toronto net, giving up eight goals on 37 shots, although he didn’t get much help from his teammates. Martin Gerber got the win in goal for Ottawa, stopping 26 shots.
Bell opened the scoring at 6:30 of the first period, snapping a wrist shot past Gerber’s glove side to make it 1-0 Leafs as the Air Canada Centre exploded in agreement. But that’s when the fun stopped for Leaf fans.
Ottawa got into the game when Heatley’s one-timer on a Sens power play made it 1-1 at 11:12. It was only Ottawa’s second shot of the game.
That woke up the Sens, who had the better of play for the remaining of the period and took the lead 2-1 with 2:45 to go when Alfredsson picked up his second assist with a nice feed to Spezza on a 3-on-1.
The game took a nasty turn on the next shift when Bell nailed Alfredsson – who had his head down – with a borderline hit that absolutely drilled the Sens captain to the ice. He was slow to get up and the Ottawa bench was livid, but there was no penalty on the play.
The Sens were out for blood after the hit. Ottawa winger Shean Donovan induced a fight with Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe, while moments later Bass pummelled Leafs forward John Pohl in another.
Alfredsson played one shift in the second period before heading back to the dressing room, obviously still feeling the effects of the Bell hit.
No need for Alfie to play hurt, his teammates could handle the Leafs without him.
Bass scored a short-handed goal 6:03 into the second period, completing a nice feed from Chris Phillips. That seemed to give the Senators more wind in their sails.
Vermette himself then took care of business with a pair of rebound goals, one on a power play at 14:01 and the other a back breaker at 19:33, making it 5-1 Senators after 40 minutes.
McAmmond and Vermette made it embarrassing for the home side when they scored short-handed goals on the same Leaf power play early in the third period. McAmmond scored on a partial breakaway at 2:27 while Vermette put in his own rebound at 3:11 after Toskala stopped his first two attempts.
Moore made it 7-2 at 6:51 but Heatley restored the six-goal lead 23 seconds later.
Notes – Veteran winger Cory Stillman returned to the Ottawa lineup after missing two games with a leg injury … The Leafs were once again without top scorers Mats Sundin (groin) and Nik Antropov (knee). The Leafs close out their regular season Saturday night at Montreal with backup Andrew Raycroft in net for the Leafs… It was the third time in franchise history the Sens scored three short-handed goals in a game.