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Gameday #36: Toronto Maple Leafs @ Chicago Blackhawks

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After following up a 9-2 victory over the New York Rangers Saturday, with a 7-3 loss to the Florida Panthers in their next games on Tuesday, the inconsistent Leafs visit the Windy City to face Martin Havlat and the the red hot Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night. (8:30Pm ET)

Leafs defenceman Hal Gill had his worse game of the season in the return of Gary Roberts and Ed Belfour to Toronto, having been most of the cause of 5 of the 7 goals scored against Toronto on the night.

Center Mike Peca views the games end result as being due to the Leafs being outplayed by the other team.

Michael Peca said:
"It's one of those nights we wish we didn't have. I don't think we were fully prepared to battle against this team - a team that plays hard every night."
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Carlo Colaiacovo, Jeff O'Neill and Tomas Kaberle scored the goals for Toronto, who are currently in a tight race with the rest of the Eastern Conference and the 1 loss to Florida being enough to put Toronto out of the playoffs... for now. 35 games in, the Washington Capital, New Jersey Devils, New Yorks Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, and Bosotn Bruins surround the Maple Leafs in the standings. Only 4 points seperate the teams from 5th in the East, to 12th.

More potentially bad news for the Leafs could be the injury to Winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, who was having yet another career year and was on pace for a 2nd consecutive 20-goal season.

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Ponikarovsky is not expected to play tomorrow against the Blackhawks.

Darcy Tucker was originally questionable for the game against the Panthers after a puck went off his wrist, but was able to play. Tucker currently leads the team in goals with 19, a league leading 13 on the Powerplay. He is also tied with Kyle Wellwood for the team lead in points with 31 in 35 games. Wellwood, who is also questionable for tonight's game, has 22 assists.

Menawhile, goaltender Andrew Raycroft and his Goals Against Average continue to take a beating with it now at a high 3.10. His Save Percentage is a disappointing .893, but the matter can be argued about most of the goals against him being more of the team's fault than his.

Toronto is 16-14-5 after 35 games for 37 Points. They are currently 9th in the East and 4th in the Northeast Division behind the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens, and ahead of Ottawa by 1 win. 3 of the team's last win being a result of a 3-game winning streak which was ended Tuesday night.

Chicago on the other hand has been anything but inconsistent. The Blackhawks have collected a points in 10 of their last 12 games, and await the Toronto after a 2-1 loss the Nashville Predators to get back on track.

Chicago is 7-2-3 in that span as they continue their charge up the Western Conference, the surge likely due to the hiring of new Head Coach Dennis Savard, the return of injured players such as forward Martin Havlat and Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, and the acquisition of veteran Winger Petr Bondra.

Havlat has 23 points in just 14 games, having one of the best points to game ratios in the league. He is tied for the team lead in points with other former Ottawa Senator Bryan Smolinski. Havlat also leads the team in goals with 12, and has 5 points in his last 3 games played.

Nikolai Khabibulin has been solid for the team in net, currently with an outstanding 2.50 Goals Against Average and a solid .917 Save Percentage in 21 games.

An improving Chicago team now has a respectable 14-14-5 record for 33 Points. Just 3 points out of the last playoff spot in the West, and good enough for 3rd in the Central Division.

Toronto returns home tomorrow to host the Washington Capitals.
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Leafs and Blackhawks renew rivalry

(Sports Network) - A pair of the NHL's Original Six franchises meet this evening in the Windy City, as the Chicago Blackhawks welcome the Toronto Maple Leafs to the United Center.

This is the first matchup between these teams since Chicago earned a 4-1 win in Toronto on February 3, 2004. The clubs haven't played in Chicago since February 12, 2003.

The Leafs have won three straight at the United Center and three of the last four encounters overall.

The Maple Leafs are coming off Tuesday's lopsided loss to the visiting Florida Panthers. Gary Roberts scored two goals and Jozef Stumpel tied a career-high with four assists to lead the Panthers to the 7-3 triumph.

Former Maple Leaf Ed Belfour stopped 33 shots in the win for Florida.

Jeff O'Neill and Tomas Kaberle each scored for the Maple Leafs, who had a three-game winning streak snapped.

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Maple Leafs lose Peca, game to Chicago

Chicago, IL (Sports Network) - Peter Bondra's 500th career goal proved to be the game-winning score, as the Chicago Blackhawks upended the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-1 at the United Center.

Bryan Smolinski and Brent Seabrook also lit the lamp for the Blackhawks, winners in three of their last four games. Nikolai Khabibulin made 25 saves in the win.

John Pohl tallied the only goal for the Maple Leafs, who have lost two straight following a three-game win streak. Jean-Sebastien Aubin stopped 22 shots in a hard-luck defeat.

Bondra was credited with the historic tally at 5:37 of the third, chopping a bouncing puck out of the air in the slot past Aubin. The initial shot came from Jassen Cullimore at the point, hit several players on its way to the net, and found Bondra who showed his usual dexterity on the marker.

The goal gave the Blackhawks their first lead of the night, 2-1, and was Chicago's first shot on goal in the period, only its sixth since the end of the first.

"I felt like it was my first goal," Bondra said. "I wasn't sure what I should be doing. I was happy I could score a big goal to win a game. You couldn't get a better goal than against Toronto."

The Slovakian-born sniper, who was signed as a free agent on December 10th, is the 37th player in NHL history to reach the 500-goal plateau, and the fifth of European origin to accomplish the feat.

Seabrook then upped the Hawks' lead to 3-1 on a wicked knuckling slapper from the bottom of the right circle with 2:44 remaining, and the Leafs could not score despite pulling Aubin with under two minutes to play.

"We had a good effort, but couldn't score goals," said Leafs captain Mats Sundin. "They capitalized on their chances. If you play hard and develop good habits, we'll win some games."

The story of the first period was the play of Aubin, who performed acrobatics in the crease to keep the Hawks scoreless while making 13 saves, at least five of which were point-blank chances.

However, a capacity crowd was moved to silence when Leafs forward Michael Peca was forced to leave the game late in the first with a right knee injury, as Blackhawks defenseman Jim Vandermeer collided with the veteran on an accidental knee-to-knee hit.

He was taken to a local hospital for x-rays, and while the prognosis is unknown, it appears to be of a similar kind Peca suffered in the 2002 playoffs.

"This is not day-to-day," said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice. "It's a bad injury. He's in quite a bit of pain. We're not going to know until the doctors get a better look inside."

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