KANATA, Ont. — Minutes before Saturday night’s puck drop, an Ottawa Senators fan stepped into a Canadian Tire Center elevator bustling with blue sweaters, scrunched up his nose and took a whiff.
“Smells like Leafs fans in here,” the man chided.
“Ah, you must smell winning, then,” quipped one of the visitors clad in Maple Leafs garb.
The crowded elevator shared a good laugh, but the hundreds upon hundreds of card-carrying citizens of Leafs Nation who funnelled into the enemy’s barn for 2017-18’s first edition of the Battle of Ontario were less jovial three hours later, watching the “road” team lose a 6-3 rocker to their provincial rival.
The volume and cockiness of the invading Toronto supporters screamed into the rink at Volume 11 and gradually faded to silence, only to resurge when James van Riemsdyk busted Craig Anderson’s shutout bid with 14 minutes left to play and chances sprung at both ends.
But the actual home side led wire-to-wire and deserved its victory, a triumph of effort and execution.
“Go! Leafs! Go!” chants thundered loud and often.
Ottawa’s Dion Phaneuf, the most recent Leafs captain, got booed lustily during a harmless carry through the neutral zone.
And several sections of the crammed arena were shaded by the same blue-to-red ratio of a Blue Jays cap. (The Sens probably could’ve peeled the tarps off some of those 1,500 unused seats and collected a little more cash for their captain’s next contract on this night.)
The reigning Canadian Team to Go Furthest in the Playoffs versus the Las Vegas odds-makers’ new favourite to win it all: Yes, the Battle of Ontario is back in a meaningful way, as Ottawa and Toronto both believe they have the personnel and the system to claim an Atlantic Division crown.
The Leafs, a handful in the O-zone, travelled northeast with a perfect road record. The Senators, prone to giving up leads in their own barn, operate one of the stingiest defensive units in the game. The league’s most dangerous power play versus one of the most respected penalty-killing groups.
One anthem, two opposing stylistic approaches.
“Ottawa’s given us a tough time,” said Toronto coach Mike Babcock. “They’re a real patient team. They live off their neutral-zone forecheck and breaking out quick and transition. You can’t feed their transition.”
Which is precisely what Toronto did out the gates, stumbling in their attempts to break into Ottawa territory with pace. Toss in some nonsensical turnovers and a two-to-one ratio in shot attempts, and the Leafs were lucky to escape the first period down by only one.
“If you think you’re just gonna toe-drag and play run-and-gun, you’re not gonna,” said Babcock. “It made for a long night.”
Frederik Andersen was sharp early, standing tall in the face of a Johnny Oduya wind-’er-up slapper, gloving a Mike Hoffman wrister off the rush, and then snuffing Hoffman once more, point-blank on a partial breakaway early.
Mark Stone cranked one off a post after hopping on one of the Leafs’ many own-zone giveaways, and Matt Martin may have blocked a shot with each of his four limbs in a single hemmed-in shift.
Ottawa’s pressure paid off in the form of new guy Nate Thompson’s first as a Senator, the reward of a fourth-line poking frenzy in Andersen’s crease.
The Senators doubled their lead late in Period 2 with another touch in tight. Ryan Dzingel laid a lovely tip on an Erik Karlsson point shot.
Ironically, the greasy brand of goals pumped Ottawa to a 2-0 lead were the exact type of goal Sens coach Guy Boucher had praised the Leafs for generating. Pummel the net front with pucks, no matter the angle. Jam and whack and clutter the crease with bodies. Create chaos.
“Their offence is not a pretty offense. It’s a gritty one,” said Boucher, with admiration, before the game.
“If you look at the top two teams in the league offensively, they don’t rely on their skills. They rely on their grit with their skill—that’s very different. The Devils and Toronto are teams that put pucks at the net constantly.
“Those guys have an effective offense because they have a dirty offense. Over 80 per cent of their goals are dirty offence. They do that very well, and they’re very fast.”
True, but the six clogging gears of Boucher’s ever-evolving defence system can act, as they did Saturday, as centrifugal governor, decelerating the zippiest of attacks for long, frustrating stretches.
“We played right into their whole system. They play that trap. They sit back and wait for you to make a mistake,” Matthews said. “They kinda just bore you death almost. They’re really good at what they do.
“Tonight was unacceptable.”
I don’t like that both goalies have the same last names. It is too confusing for me to listen too.
— Nicholle Anderson (@xonichollexo) October 21, 2017
A trailing Toronto was forced to open up further as the night went on, and odd-man rushes flowed the other way. The Leafs gave the puck away an unlucky 13 times.
Piping-hot Derick Brassard smoothly took a Bobby Ryan pass off his skate and sniped his team-leading fifth of the season.
“I’m having fun right now,” said Brassard, who missed all of training camp as he rehabbed his right shoulder after off-season surgery. “I didn’t have any pre-season games. Maybe it was good to just go out there and play and not think too much.”
Stone made good on his second Grade-A chance, providing an immediate response to the Matthews goal seven seconds after a Boucher timeout, and would later add an empty-netter.
That insurance was needed when Matthews set up Nylander, who cut the Sens’ lead back to one.
Then Brassard struck again.
What colour-blind joy when every goal gets an ovation.
“The game could’ve turned to our favour in the third period, but they were better than us. They competed harder than we did,” Babcock said.
The winged angel that is Karlsson set up three of Ottawa’s strikes, and through his first three games skating on half an ankle bone, the fantasy player’s dream already has six points.
“His skating is elite. The things he can do with his feet, with his mind, with the puck are exceptional. He’s a fun player to watch,” said Babcock.
“If you’re a young player, you want to be him. Now, unless you get touched by a wand by God, you’re not going to be him.”
Karlsson is back, Stone is inspired, and Brassard couldn’t look healthier.
A three-point night for each of the star players will be tempered by the bad news that Ryan fractured his right index finger and is likely out for about a month.
Still, the Senators can smell winning, too. They just trumped the high-scoring Leafs in a nine-goal, 66-shot affair.
“That team was almost in the Stanley Cup Final last year,” said Babcock. “All they’ve been hearing about is the Leafs, how great we are, and they just showed us they’re still the big boys.
“We’re not quite ready.”