OTTAWA — Two things we can count on when the Maple Leafs visit Ottawa:
1. Boundless entertainment.
2. Thousands of fans who paint the Canadian Tire Centre blue and white will end the night either crying in their beer or laughing all the way home.
On Saturday night, it was tears for Leaf fears as the Senators skated away with a 5-3 victory, not before all hell broke loose with six seconds left to play.
After the Leafs failed to put one past Joonas Korpisalo in the Senators goal with Toronto’s net empty, Sens forward Ridly Greig skated up ice and emphatically hammered the puck into the empty net.
Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, incensed by the showy finish by Greig, came right at him and cross-checked Greig in the head. Everyone got involved at that point and officials got Greig off the ice. Rielly was assessed a five-minute cross-checking major and a game misconduct.
We’ll see if the NHL decides he needs further discipline, but we know this much: the Battle of Ontario is back in business.
“You never really know what Greiger is going to do,” said Senators centre Josh Norris. “I mean, I loved it. But I’m sure if we were on the other side of that I don’t know if we would have liked it, either. But I didn’t really like the retaliation (by Rielly). I understand their frustration but it’s over with. And I guess it was entertaining.”
The entire night was that and more. Although, there were only two minor penalties called, both against Toronto, and this was hardly a chippy game until the Greig clapper heard ‘round the province.
“I think the league will look at it,” said Senators interim head coach Jacques Martin of the Rielly cross-check. “It’s not a hockey play. It’s frustration or something, but it’s not part of the game.”
Martin didn’t take issue with his young forward pumping a puck into an empty net.
“He put the puck in the net,” Martin said. “Whether he pushes it, or shoots it, it shouldn’t matter.”
That Greig, 21, was out there in the final minute is an indication of how much trust Martin has in him.
“I think he finished the game plus-4,” Martin said, correctly. “Before the game he was plus-15. To me that’s an indication that he’s pretty responsible.”
It was quite a night for the 19,679 in the building, Ottawa’s 13th sellout of the season. Back and forth went the chants, the cheers and the groans, with Leaf fans probably in the majority.
The vocal minority was pleased, though, to see the Senators close out the season series with a 3-1 advantage over the Leafs and extend their overall winning streak to three games, building off a 6-2-2 stretch prior to the All-Star break.
The Senators might not have played a game for 10 days, but they woke up in a hurry when the Leafs opened the scoring just 3:45 into the game, on the 42nd goal of the season by Auston Matthews.
Toronto captain John Tavares had a chance to build on that lead. Perhaps it was the chants of “pay your taxes!” that distracted him. But Tavares, locked in a tax dispute with the Ottawa-based Canada Revenue Agency, missed two good chances in the first period while the Senators were finding their legs.
Late in the first period, when Mathieu Joseph stripped Mitch Marner of the puck and got it to Claude Giroux, the veteran winger made no mistake with his backhand shot that beat Martin Jones. The Sens were back in the game.
Early in period two, Shane Pinto sent Vladimir Tarasenko in alone with a backhand pass and Tarasenko buried his forehand shot.
Now, it was the Leafs’ turn to battle back, and they did tie it on a tip by Matthew Knies off a Marner shot midway through the second.
Then the cruel twist. An errant high stick by Pinto on Jake McCabe went undetected and Pinto drifted in front of the net to tip a point shot by Parker Kelly for the 3-2 Ottawa lead.
Precisely four minutes later, the home side made it 4-2 on an absolute snipe from Norris, who skated in unchecked from the point and ripped a shot to the top corner above Jones’ glove hand.
The unassisted goal was his 13th and the first by Norris since Dec. 23, a 14-game drought.
“Anytime you beat the Leafs at home, especially on a Saturday night (Hockey Night In Canada), it’s special,” Norris said. “I thought we played a good game, coming off the break. It wasn’t perfect at the start but it’s just the maturity level we’ve shown the last stretch of games.”
The Leafs upped the pressure in the third period and the Uh-oh moment arrived just a little more than five minutes in when Max Domi ended a flurry in the Ottawa end with a goal into an open net.
Korpisalo made several important stops down the stretch among the 34 Leafs shots he faced. And the Senators kept things quiet until that Greig goal set off the Leafs bench and Rielly on the ice.
“The emotions will sometimes get to you and it was an intense game,” Giroux said. “The fans were involved and sometimes that kind of stuff happens. Obviously I don’t like seeing him (Greig) get hit in the face, there, but there’s not much really to say. Sometimes that kind of stuff happens.”
Sadly, the Senators and Leafs won’t meet again this season, unless it is in the post-season.
Makes Ottawa fans pine all the more for a miraculous run to a playoff berth.