OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs may be off to uninspiring starts this season, but they proved to a surprisingly low turnout Tuesday that their rivalry is alive and well.
Mike Fisher scored twice, including the winning goal in the second period, to lift Ottawa over the Maple Leafs 3-2 in an intense affair before a Scotiabank Place crowd of 17,406 - almost two thousand fans less than capacity.
"A lot of hard hits and fights. It was a physical game, back and forth and some good battles out there," said Fisher,
Since their last playoff meeting in 2004, the season series between the Senators and Leafs has struggled to live up to the billing, but the fans who turned up for Tuesday night's game witnessed a return to form for one of the NHL's best pre-lockout rivalries.
"Obviously, it was still the Battle of Ontario," Leafs centre Matt Stajan said.
There were four fights, several big hits and plenty of scoring chances at both ends. It was decided when Fisher, who also opened the scoring, beat Vesa Toskala with a high shot after the Senators rallied from a 2-1 second-period deficit.
"It was a fairly exciting hockey game," added Toronto defenceman Ian White. "A couple of fights, a close game a a lot of aggression and guys battling. It was good."
Milan Michalek had the other goal for the Senators (9-6-3), who earned their first win in three games while dropping the Leafs (3-11-5) into a tie with Carolina for last place in the NHL with 11 points. However, Toronto does have a game in hand on the Hurricanes, who were beaten 3-2 in shootout at Montreal.
Pascal Leclaire stopped 30 shots, including 15 in the third period when the Maple Leafs pressed for the tying goal but were unable to prevent their fourth straight loss in a dismal start to the season.
"It's tough. We're definitely working hard and getting chances, but, at the end of the day, we've got to find a way to score one more than the other team," Stajan said.
Phil Kessel and Niklas Hagman had the goals for the Leafs, who gave up the opening goal for the 17th time in 19 games before taking a 2-1 lead early in the second period.
That's when Michalek took advantage of a hooking call to Hagman to deflect the tying goal past Toskala midway through the period before Fisher struck a little more than three minutes later.
Toronto pressed for the tying goal in the third, but Leclaire, and the Senators' lead, held.
"We liked our first 50 minutes of the game," Ottawa coach Cory Clouston said. "We played our last 10 not to lose. You can't have success like that, but we got the two points. We needed (Leclaire) and he was at his best."
Alex Kovalev, Alexandre Picard and Chris Campoli each added a pair of assists for the Senators.
For the Leafs, Kessel's goal extended his point-scoring streak to six games, during which he has five goals and three assists.
Rookie defenceman Carl Gunnarsson picked up an assist on Kessel's goal for his first NHL point.
Toskala, who's still looking for his first win of the season, made 18 saves as his record fell to 0-4-2 on the year without much offensive support.
However, Leafs coach Ron Wilson bristled when it was suggested the Leafs' offence is snake-bit.
"Where does that come from, snake-bit?" he snapped. "We're frustrated a I'm frustrated that some people don't get it when we go on about turnovers. One little moment when you don't concentrate and it winds up in your net."
There was a time when this ticket would have been the hottest in town, but instead Scotiabank Place featured large pockets of empty seats in its upper-most bowl.
That's what you get when you combine two teams that missed the playoffs last season and could both be headed in the same direction against this year.
Regardless, they did a good job of re-igniting the animosity of meetings past.
There were three fights in the opening 20 minutes. Ottawa's Jesse Winchester and Toronto's Jeff Finger got things started early, dropping the gloves less than three minutes in before a couple of heavyweights squared off in Senators defenceman Matt Carkner and Leafs winger Colton Orr, with Orr catching Carkner with a punch that dropped the big blue-liner. Ottawa tough guy Chris Neil later went at it with Toronto sophomore Luke Schenn.
There was also some scoring.
Fisher pounced on a loose puck in the slot and slipped a shot past Toskala to make it 1-0. However, the Leafs were level 62 seconds later when Kessel crossed the Senators' blue-line and wristed a shot past Leclaire.
Leclaire's been facing some criticism in Ottawa with a tendency to give up a questionable goal in each start and Kessel's marker likely won't do anything to silence his critics.
However, Leclaire redeemed himself in the third. He made a great save to reach his stick back and steer the puck out of the crease after a fluke bounce almost got past him. He survived another close call when Leafs forward Lee Stempniak struck the post with a shot from in close.
"I felt good out there and was able to make some good saves," said Leclaire, who was given the last game off and watched backup Brian Elliott turn in a solid performance in a 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday. "It was a real fun game. a A few fights and I think the intensity was pretty high."
Notes: Carkner leads the NHL in fighting majors with nine. Orr has seven. a The Senators have dominated the season series in recent years, coming into the game with a 19-9-3 record against the Leafs since 2005-06, including a 10-3-2 mark at home. a Five of the previous seven Battles on Ontario have been decided by one goal. a The Senators play host to Pittsburgh on Thursday while the Leafs are at Carolina that same night.