Upon the first glance, the once-bitter rivalry between these two provincial foes seems to have lost a good chunk of its old sizzle.
But don't tell that to Senators centre Jason Spezza
, a Toronto boy who still has plenty of connections to home. He'd like nothing more than to send the Maple Leafs home empty-handed after the teams meet tonight at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200), even if it won't match the intensity of their playoff battles earlier this decade.
"We haven’t played each other in the playoffs for a little bit, so you lose that kind of effect," Spezza said after the Senators' pre-game skate earlier today.
"For a while there, it seemed like we played them every year in the playoffs. But it’s still Toronto-Ottawa and they’re big games to me, being from Toronto. I know lots of people are watching."
While the Leafs (3-10-5) would seem to be the softest touch for the Senators (8-6-3) on a homestand that includes upcoming matchups with the Pittsburgh Penguins (Thursday), Buffalo Sabres (Saturday) and Washington Capitals (Monday), nobody is taking this one lightly. And not just because provincial bragging rights are on the line.
Consider, too, that the teams' records are almost identical over the last 10 games – Toronto is 3-3-4, Ottawa is 3-4-3 – and the Leafs didn't have new offensive threat Phil Kessel in their lineup when the Senators posted a 2-1 victory in Toronto back on Oct. 6. The former Boston Bruin recorded seven points (four goals, three assists) in his first six games in a Toronto uniform.
"When you add a guy like Kessel ... he's playing well and he's starting to put the puck in the net for them," said Senators head coach Cory Clouston. "They're a dangerous team."
The first goal might provide a significant early barometer about the final result tonight. Ottawa is 5-2-2 when it scores first this season, while the Leafs are a woeful 2-10-4. Toronto has opened the scoring only twice in 18 starts during the current campaign.
"It's always easier to play with the lead, no question," said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
. "If you’re behind, it’s a lot tougher. We’d like to get out to a quick start but at the same time, we respect Toronto – we know they’re going to work really hard.
"We haven’t played each other in the playoffs for a little bit, so you lose that kind of effect. For a while there, it seemed like we played them every year in the playoffs. But it’s still Toronto-Ottawa and they’re big games to me, being from Toronto. I know lots of people are watching." - Jason Spezza
"From what I’ve heard, they’ve played better on the road than they have at home. It’s going to be a tight-checking game and that first goal is important."
Clouston would also like to see a better finish from his team, which has surrendered a few crucial points in the standings lately by frittering away late leads.
"The first goal is important, but we’re trying to focus more on a full 60-minute game," he said. "You can put yourself behind the 8-ball or really give yourself some momentum early, but you can’t win or lose a game – or shouldn’t be able to – in the first minute or so.
"What we need to be able to do is go out there and understand that it’s going to take a 60-minute effort. In probably three of our last four games, we’ve maybe been able to put 45 or 50 minutes together. It’s those little lapses that have hurt us."
That's not likely to happen tonight, with the blue and white back in sight.
"Everyone's saying the rivalry's not there, but there's always a rivalry with any team you play," said Senators forward Chris Neil
. "You're ready to go and give 100 per cent for your team."Around the boards
The Leafs might be just the tonic for a Senators power play that is just beginning to hit its stride. Toronto's penalty-killing unit ranks last in the 30-team National Hockey League (71.2 per cent). "The last game, it wasn't that good, but we've been over 20 per cent the last six or seven games," said Spezza of the Ottawa power play. "It's been better as of late." ... Danish centre Peter Regin
will be a healthy scratch for the first time this season, joining Ryan Shannon in the press box tonight, while Jesse Winchester
and Shean Donovan draw into the lineup. "We have 14 forwards here, so somebody has to be out of the lineup every night," said Regin. "Tonight, it’s my turn but I’ll do my best to be in the lineup the next game. It reminds you that you have to work hard every day." ... Pascal Leclaire makes his 14th start of the season in goal for the Senators ... Fewer than 3,000 tickets
remain for tonight's game.