I won't even try to talk about the “original” Ottawa Senators. I believe they played in the 1920’s or ‘30s but I don’t really know anything about the first NHL team in the Canadian capital. Many fine hockey historians out there have produced pieces on the city’s history in the NHL that I can’t possibly duplicate.
On the eve/day of the big game this weekend between the Leafs and the Senators, my thoughts are on some much more recent history—the short-lived but still memorable “Battle of Ontario” that gripped both cities (and yes, much of hockey-mad Ontario, in just about every corner of the province) during the early 2000s.
If we’re honest, like most expansion teams, the Senators were far from competitive in their early years in the 1990s. They had some fine character guys like ex-Flame and Maple Leaf Brad Marsh but it takes a while to build through the draft. After a few management hiccups (and an unfair burden placed on first overall choice Alexandre Daigle) they built the franchise slowly and well. They had the usual assortment of high draft picks and by and large seemed to make some pretty solid selections. They kept getting better and better and eventually, as we all recall, became more than just sort of competitive. They were really good. We can criticize Jacques Martin and his boring, Hitchcock-esque approach to coaching his teams toward success (and their opponents into numbing submission). But the guy did indeed have success. In fact, unless I’m mis-remembering (as a famous former pitcher once said), the Senators started handing us our hat pretty regularly in the late ‘90s and the early part of the last decade. They had some explosive offensive talent, despite Martin's penchant for a tight defensive game.
But I think most of us would acknowledge that the turning point of, well...let’s call it our “relationship” with the Sens and their own very devoted and passionate fans really turned the corner because we kept meeting those guys in the playoffs. I’m guessing there were young kids who were Leaf “fans” a decade ago who, perhaps unaware of some of the intricacies of how the playoff structure worked, just assumed the Leafs and the Senators played in a venom-filled series every spring because they just disliked each other so much that they had to get it out of their systems.
Even for us adults, it sure felt that way.
For me personally, those four Leafs/Sens playoff series (it was four, right?) all kind of morph into one. The Senators had built with Chara, Redden, Alfie, Hossa, Bonk and some fine pluggers. As I said, more often than not, my memory suggests that they were the better team in the regular-season most years, not just in terms of the standings, but when they played us. I’m going to say (but will gladly be corrected!) that they must have been the so-called favorites in at least three of the four series heading into the match-ups.
Yet, in each series, the Leafs somehow managed to get by the seemingly more talented, younger, faster and certainly more explosive Ottawa teams. The Leafs survived every time, and lived to fight another day. For the Sens and Martin, it eventually cost him his job, though he had excelled in every other respect in bringing out the best in the Senators.
There were Nieuwendyk’s two goals in the first period of the last Game 7 the two sides played in the playoffs. There was Alfredsson’s hit from behind on Tucker (which would get him suspended now, but did not even draw a penalty at the time…) Of course, we all remember the seemingly endless interviews of Senators players while riding their bicycles post-game...
And those are just a few snapshot moments that jump off the top of my head, and as I mentioned, if I had to put the puzzle together and place those events in chronological order for you, I couldn’t do it. (Sometimes I have a better memory for what happened 45 years ago than I do something that happened a few years back…such are the vagaries of advancing age.)
If you have a second, by all means shed some light on things that stand out for you in recalling those great spring-time series. Until then, let’s face it, there was no “rivalry” between the two NHL teams. The Sens were just a lousy expansion team. But like all little brothers, they got bigger real quick, and in some cases, the little brothers get better and stronger than the older brother. That was pretty much happening for the Sens in those days—until they hit the playoffs.
Why did the Leafs earn those playoff series wins? Was it their goaltending? Grit? It certainly was that, for sure. And I think Pat Quinn’s coaching had a lot to do with all those playoff victories that the Leafs earned from 1999 through 2004. I remember Gretzky saying that Quinn was absolutely the best bench coach in the NHL. It had to have some effect.
But for today, let’s focus on those series with the Senators. Good times for Leaf fans. Frustration- and unfinished business- for Sens’ fans.
As the current Leafs and Senators both continue to build young, fast, hard-working teams, we may just get another great Eastern Conference playoff match-up before we know it (this coming April, maybe?).
But in the meantime, what comes to mind for you from a decade ago?