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The Battle of Ontario was a rivalry born out of geography and media that was quickly taken to heart by the players and coaches of each team that became a driving force when they went head-to-head. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators always seemed to have an extra jump in their step when facing off against each other throughout the nineties and early 21st century. That era was arguably some of the most passionate hockey ever played on an NHL ice surface. Crushing overtime losses, playoff eliminations, and controversial hits and plays all led to these games being more entertaining to watch than playoff hockey. But has this rivalry peaked? Over the past few seasons, as both teams have been rebuilding both their rosters and head offices, the on-ice product and passion has dipped. The battle seems to be mostly used as a media headline that doesnt pack the same punch as it once did.
However, could this rivalry be on the resurgence? This off-season, Toronto and Ottawa worked a lot together on the trade market, swapping several players over the past month. Their younger players have also hinted that their excited about the Battle – having grown up watching it on television themselves. Is a new fire about to be lit as these players attempt to show their former teams what theyve lost out on? Or has this rivalry truly been lost on this next generation of players and fans?
Now, technically, Toronto and Ottawa were two of the founding cities when it comes to the birth of the NHL. The Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Arenas first met in 1904. The Senators were relocated in 1934 however and would not be seen again until the 1992 NHL expansion when Ottawa rejoined the league alongside the Tampa Bay Lightning. Even then, the two teams were in different conferences as the Leafs were still considered west. At the start of the 1998-99 season, the NHL realigned their conferences and the Leafs joined the Senators in the Eastern conference. This is when the Battle was truly born.
On March 11, 2000, the first major controversy came into play. At a game played between the two teams, former Ottawa Senator Marian Hossa clipped former Leafs player Bryan Berards eye with his stick. It was claimed accidental but some believed it intentional. This triggered many Leafs fans hatred of the Senators as the incident ended Berards season and he was never the same for the rest of his career. The two teams would meet later that season in the playoffs for the first time in the first round. The Leafs would be victorious, beating the Sens by a series score of 4-2.
The two teams would meet again in the playoffs for the next two seasons – once again in the first round and once in the second round. The Leafs would win both of those series but in the 2001-02 playoff series, another controversial hit was delivered – once again by a Senator. Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson had hit Darcy Tucker from behind without receiving a penalty, sparking even more animosity from the Toronto players and their fans.
The following season did not pass without its own controversies. Although the two teams did not meet in the playoffs, the regular season was riddled with chaos between the two clubs. During one regular season game, Darcy Tucker attacked Sens forward Chris Neil while Neil was sitting on the bench. Tucker claimed that Neil had spit on him but the leagues review established that claim as false. In the same game, Leafs forward Tie Domi threw several punches at Ottawas Magnus Arvedson. Tucker, Neil, and Domi all received game misconducts and Tucker and Domi both received multi-game suspensions. During the game in question, 163 penalty minutes were called.
The next season contained possibly the biggest controversy between the two teams. While playing a game against the Nashville Predators, Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin broke his stick on a shot attempt and, in the heat of the moment, through the broken stick into the crowd. The NHL suspended him for one game. That one game he was suspended for was a game against the Senators. During the game (held in Toronto), Ottawa captain and countryman of Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson, would have his stick break in a similar fashion. Alfredsson would feign throwing his stick into the Toronto crowd and the Leafs fans took offense. Several years later, Alfredsson would still be booed by Leafs fans every time he touched the puck because of this incident. In fact, the boos would not stop until his retirement.
When it came to the regular season, the Ottawa Senators established themselves as betting favorites moving forward. Since 1992, the Senators and Maple Leafs have played 143 total games against each other. The Senators have the winning record for the regular season with a record over the Leafs of 64-44-3-9. The Senators also boast the largest margin of victory for a single game – an 8-0 victory over the Maple Leafs on October 29, 2005. The Sens have the longest winning streak during the rivalry, winning seven in a row, and they also possess the current winning streak between the teams, wining the last two meetings in a row.
Its all about the playoffs though, isnt it? And in the playoffs, the Leafs were the bane of the Sens existence. The Leafs have a record of 16-8 over the Senators in their playoff meetings and have won every series between the two teams. Ottawa fans are still waiting for the team to break that curse. However, overall playoff play has been on Ottawas side since 1992 as they have made more playoff appearances, have a Presidents trophy for the best overall team record, and made an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.
The two teams have not met in the playoffs since. Since the early years of the 21st century, the two teams started trending in opposite directions. The Senators would consistently make the playoffs, even reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2007. The Maple Leafs continued to trend downward – missing the playoffs for the next several seasons. The rivalry, for some, peaked in 2011 when both franchises failed to qualify for the postseason.
In 2015, the teams were in the news for anything but controversy – they had worked together to pull off a blockbuster trade. The traded included the Maple Leafs sending their then captain Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators and, in total, saw nine players swap teams. Many thought this would respark the dying feud but it only seemed to make things less interesting and seemed to separate the teams from each other even more. After all, rivals dont make deals, do they?
After the shortened 2012-13 season, the two teams wouldnt be in the playoffs at the same time again until 2016-17. The Leafs were eliminated in the first round by the Washington Capitals while the Senators made a miraculous run to game seven of the Eastern Conference finals where they were eventually eliminated in overtime by the Pittsburgh Penguins. They havent made the playoffs since and the Leafs have made it every season onward.
Post 2010, as the two teams seemed to distance themselves from each other, new adversaries seemed to appear for both. Two years in a row, the Ottawa Senators met the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. They took one series a piece and a new rivalry was born on the backs of two up-and-coming defensive superstars: Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban. The competition during the playoffs was high. There were dirty hits, verbal insults (remember the walrus?), and even line brawls. Two teams that were known for playing finesse hockey were setting records for penalty minutes.
The Leafs also found a geographically closer villain. For two seasons in a row, the Leafs and Buffalo Sabres would have bench clearing brawls – in the pre-season! Who could forget the newly acquired David Clarkson hopping over the boards to join a fight on the ice and being suspended before the regular season even began? Furthermore, like the Sens and Habs, the Leafs sparked a new rivalry with the Boston Bruins – a team that has become Torontos playoff kryptonite much like they used to be for the Senators.
The question now lies – will we see a resurgence between these two (former?) rivals? This off-season, Toronto and Ottawa worked together more than ever before. The last time these two teams pulled off a significant trade, it didnt seem to spark much fire between the two. But one could argue that something seems different this time.
Two players that could help spark some animosity were, in fact, traded for each other. As part of a six-player deal, Nikita Zaitsev and Cody Ceci are the standouts. Zaitsev made it clear that he wanted to be traded away from the Leafs but never really clarified why. Some believe there was a rift between himself and head coach Mike Babcock. Zaitsev said there were many reasons for the request and figured a change of scenery would do him well. But could his annoyance with the Leafs translate into wanting to stick it to his former team? Will the extra bounce in his step inspire his new teammates when facing the Toronto team?
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Cody Ceci is an Ottawa-born player and loved being a Senator. For the last six seasons, he played in Ottawa and admitted it was a shock to find out about the trade. But he was then quoted as saying he was excited to play on the opposite side of the Battle of Ontario. Every player who gets traded wants to show up their former team and Ceci has made it clear that the Battle is still acknowledged by players and that hes excited to help continue it.
I grew up cheering against them (Toronto) and I played against them the last six years in the Battle of Ontario and that was always a big one for me, Ceci told the media. Those were easy games to get up for. Now that Im on the other side of things its a little weird but I think that will wear off.
Ceci wasnt the only one who watched these games as a kid. Young stars from both teams have made statements claiming how excited they get playing in these games. Its a driving force to play better. Last seasons first-round pick for Ottawa, Brady Tkachuk, and American-born player, was ecstatic about playing his first game as a Sen against the Leafs.
Ultimately, a proper rivalry is going to come down to both teams being, well, good. The early 2000s saw both teams consistently making the playoffs. But then the Leafs dipped while the Senators soared. And then the Leafs hit a new benchmark just as the Sens started to drown. But has a new spark been lit? Theres no question that the Leafs are back to being a consistent playoff team, but are the Senators looking better sooner than most thought they would? Have they made some of their best moves in years during this off-season? Could they be back in the playoffs sooner than later? Time will tell, but things look more optimistic than ever for fans of these two teams and for hockey fans in general that the Battle of Ontario is here to stay.
As it stands, Maple Leafs has the edge from the oddsmakers with their odds to win the Stanley Cup listed at +1500. The Senators currently sit at +25000.
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