The Battle of Ontario has never been the kind of storied rivalry that draws the attention of the entire hockey world, mostly because the two teams have never simultaneously been NHL powerhouses. And yet, it has consistently been one of the league’s most interesting conflicts because it has been so one-sided over the years.
No matter how well the Senators play, Toronto seems to find a way to beat them. Conversely, regardless of how dark the situation gets for the Maple Leafs, they always seem able to ruin things for Ottawa. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a pair of losses to the Leafs late in the 2014-15 season could end up costing the Sens a chance at the post-season. If we were looking for a microcosm of the historic contest between these two clubs, we would be hard pressed to do better than the events of the last two weeks.
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Ottawa has been red-hot; the club has won 18 of its last 25 games. In the same span, Toronto has been embarrassingly bad, the reverse of their Ontario counterpart winning seven of its past 25. Thanks to a victory over the Leafs on March 21, the Senators even held a 2-1 edge in the season series between the clubs entering the season’s final weeks.
None of it mattered. In a March 28 game broadcast on Hockey Night in Canada, Ottawa held a 3-1 lead with 10 minutes left in the third period; the Leafs scored twice in what remained of regulation and again in overtime to complete the comeback. Then on Sunday the Leafs beat Ottawa again, this time in the shootout, even as some Senators fans complained that the NHL has missed a Marc Methot overtime goal (which further review determined had in fact missed the net).
A pair of wins over Toronto would have given Ottawa the season series, and put the club in control of its playoff destiny. Instead, the Leafs ended up winning the series by a 3-2 margin, leaving the unfortunate Senators two points back of a trio of playoff teams. Ottawa plays one of those clubs, Pittsburgh, on Tuesday but even if they win that contest they’ll need fortune on their side because the Senators are last among the four Eastern bubble teams in terms of non-shootout wins, which is the NHL’s first tiebreaker.
If Ottawa ends up missing the playoffs by one or two points, Toronto will have once again repeated a pattern that sees the Maple Leafs badly hurt the Senators and then go quietly off into the night. It’s been the paradigm the two teams have followed every time they’ve met in the playoffs:
• 1999-00: Toronto beats Ottawa in the first round, loses to New Jersey in the second.
• 2000-01: Toronto beats Ottawa in the first round, loses to New Jersey in the second.
• 2001-02: Toronto beats Ottawa in the second round, loses to Carolina in the third.
• 2003-04: Toronto beats Ottawa in the first round, loses to Philadelphia in the second.
Four times the teams have met in the playoffs. Four times, Toronto has eliminated Ottawa, only to bow out in the next round. It’s happened even when the season series suggested the Senators were the superior club; incredibly in 2000-01 when the Leafs swept the higher-seeded Sens, Ottawa had won all five games between the two teams in the regular season.
Lately, though, it’s been tough for Ottawa to even beat Toronto during the year. The Senators haven’t won the season series since 2007; Toronto has won five of the past eight and the other three were draws. Overall, the Maple Leafs have gone 28-18 against the Senators over that span.
It is fun to imagine how heated this rivalry could be if the NHL’s two Ontario teams were powerhouses, with each needing to go through the other to contend for the Stanley Cup. Someday, perhaps, that will be the case and the games between the two will be must-watch hockey for fans across North America. For now, though, it’s just a quirky regional rivalry. The Senators have to settle for being the better of the two clubs in the present, while the Maple Leafs must be content with their weirdly consistent ability to beat the Senators.