No one is handing the Ottawa Senators the Stanley Cup just yet, and they don't want to talk about it.
But they showed the New York Rangers why they are the top team in the Eastern Conference right now.
"They are a pretty well-oiled machine," Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch said after the Senators won their fifth straight Wednesday night with a 3-0 victory over New York.
"They play some good hockey and they make you work every shift. They are in the position they are with good reason."
With a 5-0-1 record in the previous six games without Gretzky, the Rangers had climbed into the thick of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. They began the night two points behind Boston for the eighth and final spot and play the Bruins at Madison Square Garden on Friday.
"We realize teams are desperate to make the playoffs," Rhodes said. "We take that as a good challenge. These teams are in a playoff mode. If we can beat them, it just enhances our game."
Alexei Yashin led the Senators with two goals, but didn't want to talk about the Stanley Cup for his team at this point.
"Everybody has that feeling (that they can win the Cup)," Yashin said. "We just want to get as far as we can (in the playoffs)."
Lance Pitlick also scored for the Senators, 23-5-5 in their last 33 games
"We tried to limit their chances," Pitlick said. "When we had a breakdown, Rhodes came up real big for us."
Rhodes only faced six shots in the first period, but things picked up for him in the second and third when the Rangers outshot his team 23-20.
"I didn't have a lot of work (at first)," Rhodes said. "It helps you stay sharp when you get more (shots)."
The Senators continued to play the same kind of tight-checking hockey that vaulted them to the top of their conference. They have outscored the opposition 104-58 in their brilliant 33-game stretch.
"They're pretty solid in all three zones," Rangers goalie Mike Richter said. "You don't want to get behind a team like this."
Some of Rhodes' best work came after Pitlick had given the Senators a 2-0 lead at 9:18 of the second period. Among his better saves, he stopped a point-blank shot by Adam Graves on a rebound in front with five minutes left in the second period, then stopped Kevin Stevens in front on another rebound in the first five minutes of the third.
The game was not as close as the final score indicated, thanks to Richter. He was sensational in the first period when his team was outshot 15-6, yet only trailed 1-0 after 20 minutes.
The Senators took a 1-0 lead at 6:18 of the first on a power-play goal by Yashin, who beat Richter from the side of the net. Ottawa made it 2-0 when Pitlick scored on a 30-footer from the right side.
It was virtually a clincher for the Senators, 27-2-1 this season when leading after the second period. Yashin completed the scoring with an empty-net goal in the last minute, his 37th.
Along with Gretzky, who is out with a neck injury, the Rangers played without injured defensemen Ulf Samuelsson, Jeff Beukeboom and Peter Popovic and forward Todd Harvey.
"They've played well," Ottawa coach Jacques Martin said of the Rangers, "but when you are missing a star player (it is tough) because they're the key."
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