Rebirth of The Battle
Don't look now, but there's a bona fide Battle of Ontario brewing.
Been a while, right? Several seasons have passed since games between the Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators inspired a whole lot of interest, let alone the spite and tension that was in the air a decade ago when playoff competition took the Ontario rivalry to a new level.
Now, with the Sens shocking the NHL with their strong first half performance, and with the Leafs in the Eastern Conference playoff fight but still trailing their provincial cousins, the two clubs meet at the ACC next Tuesday with a little more than two points on the line.
The Leafs have to deal first with the Sabres in Buffalo and the first place New York Rangers, while Ottawa has to visit the Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, and also meet the Winnipeg Jets in the nation's capital on Monday 24 hours before taking on the Leafs.
So sure, we're getting a little ahead of ourselves.
But after the Senators pounded weakening Pittsburgh last night and the Leafs shut out Buffalo for their fourth straight win, the scenario of a big game between the two clubs next week shifted into focus. Ottawa, after finishing 11 points behind the Leafs last season, now leads Toronto by three points, having played two more games so far.
The Sens, along with Florida in the east and St. Louis in the west, are the surprise of the league. The difference is that while the Panthers spent their brains out to bring in established veterans to get to the salary cap floor, while the Blues were supposed to be a team capable of fighting for a post-season berth, almost all prognosticators inside and outside of Ottawa saw this season as one long, miserable ride for a hockey club that seemed likely to be the worst in Canada.
Instead, only the Vancouver Canucks are better than Ottawa so far, and Paul MacLean has to be there neck-and-neck with Ken Hitchcock of the Blues and Florida's Kevin Dineen as a coach-of-the-year favourite. Not only are the Sens doing well in the standings, but MacLean has coaxed a comeback season out of Jason Spezza and seen players like Milan Michalek and Erik Karlsson enjoy breakout campaigns. The play of youngster Mika Zibanejad for the gold medal-winning Swedes at the recent world junior hockey championships has Ottawa fans excited that a new star may be on the way.
In Toronto, improved depth at every position suddenly has impressive youngsters like goalie James Reimer, defenceman Jake Gardiner and winger Matt Frattin unable to get playing time or even in the lineup as injured players file back. Nik Kulemin may finally be coming to life, Jonas Gustavsson is on a roll in net and the combination of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul has been lethal all season.
There's a lot of hockey to go, and quite frankly, it's hard to imagine the Eastern Conference playoffs without Pittsburgh and Washington. Tampa Bay seems to have fallen right out, maybe Buffalo and Montreal, too, opening up room for young, resurgent teams like Ottawa and Toronto that weren't in the post-season picture a year ago.
The Leafs and Sens have met three times this season, with the Sens winning twice. Neither game was particularly spicy. Maybe that will change next week.