There’s nothing like the mere mention of their bitter provincial rivals to get the juices flowing in the Ottawa Senators’ dressing room.
Let’s just say that, come Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, it’ll become obvious almost from the opening faceoff that their perfect run through the pre-season is ancient history already.
“This is for real now,” head coach John Paddock said Tuesday before the Senators departed for Toronto, where they’ll play their 15th season-opener Wednesday night (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200).
|Dany Heatley (right) and Senators are anxious to get playing for real Wednesday night in Toronto. |
Added winger Dany Heatley: “The bottom line is, (the pre-season record) doesn’t mean much. It starts tomorrow.”
In a repeat of the 2006-07 season, the Senators and Maple Leafs get started with a back-to-back renewal of the Battle of Ontario. The two teams return to Scotiabank Place on Thursday night for the Sens’ home-opener (fewer than 300 tickets remain for that game).
“Everybody’s always excited when you play them, and there’s a bit more excitement when it’s the home-openers for both teams,” said Paddock.
But there’s one major difference this go around. For the first time, the Senators enter a season as reigning Eastern Conference champions, making them everyone’s target from the first drop of the puck.
“We have a target on our backs because we’re the standard for the East going into the season,” said Paddock. “I think everybody will approach us like that. So that means you have to be even more ready.”
But when the opponent is the Maple Leafs, that’s never a question. Doesn’t matter where the teams are in the standings or whether it’s regular season or playoffs, there’s always something on the line when these teams square off.
“It gets the intensity up right and gets the blood bubbling,” said Senators centre Jason Spezza
of the back-to-back openers. “Whatever happens in the first game usually carries over to the second game. It definitely gets you prepared for what’s ahead in the season.
“It’s a different way to start the season but it’s a fun way. It’s probably tougher to get two wins right off the bat than if you were playing two different teams. But it’s an exciting way to start off the season.”
Not just for the players, either. Count on the loyal fan followings of the Ontario foes to be in full roar, even if it’s only the first week of the regular season.
“It starts with the fans and rubs off on us,” said Heatley. “When you play a team eight times a year and usually a couple (more) in the pre-season, and with the playoff history between these teams … I think you’re bound to have a little hatred for that team.”
For rookie winger Nick Foligno
, there’s added excitement. It’s the National Hockey League debut for the son of Mike Foligno, a former Leaf.
“It’s obviously pretty special. There’s some (family) history there,” said Foligno, 19. “It’s not Maple Leaf Gardens (where Mike played), but it’ll still be pretty special and something I’m definitely looking forward to. Hopefully, we can come away with a win.”