By the end of the second period, the scoreboard movie advertising seemed in perfect synch with what was happening on the ice.
The Hangover, Part III.
These Big Nights – Senators vs Leafs – sure do feel to Ottawa fans like an endless series of headaches.
This night would be no different, with Toronto grindding out a 4-1 victory, despite being outshot 50-22, and Ottawa left to wonder if this hangover is a permanent condition when it comes to the Leafs.
Paul MacLean had earlier said – tongue only half in cheek – that he hoped they could “take the crowd out of it” early. As has been the case since the early skirmishes of the Battle of Ontario, the sellout crowd of 20,500 was roughly split in loyalties, but the blue-and-white jerseys louder and more rambunctious. Ottawa fans would say obnoxious, but some nights Senator fans would be shushing a library.
The Leaf fans had every reason to cheer this night, as their team is now headed for the playoffs for the first time in nine long years.
“It’s a great feeling for our team to say we clinched,” said an ecstatic Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf.
“That was the goal that we set when we started in January,” said Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle.
The day had already played out badly against the Senators, with the feisty Winnipeg Jets losing in a shootout to the charging New York Islanders. The victory lifted the Islanders over the Senators in the eastern conference standings, putting the onus on Ottawa to earn a ticket to the post-season the hard way.
“Obviously,” said MacLean, “we’ve got to go a little bit harder.”
There is a saying around Ottawa that “The Senators can never beat the Leafs when it matters,” and there is some hard evidence to back up that knock. The teams met in the playoffs in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004 – with the Leafs emerging triumphant in each test. Two of the years, 2002 and 2004, went to Game 7; in 2002 the Senators were up three games to two and could not close the deal, ultimately being shut out 3-0 in the seventh match.
Since those inspirational-depressing playoff days, the Battle of Ontario has largely fizzled. This night, however, for the first time in most of a decade, the Battle truly did matter.
Certainly, much to the continuing chagrin of Ottawa fans, the Leafs appear to own the Senators: coming into Saturday night’s game, Toronto had taken three of four matches, including a 4-0 whipping at the end of March. As for Toronto goaltender James Reimer, the first star of the night, he has now won six in a row in the Ottawa rink.
“I have no idea why we’re getting good results here,” said a smiling Reimer, “but it’s fun.”
“Obviously,” said Ottawa coach MacLean, “Reimer must be the Vezina Trophy winner and the Hart Trophy winner. He gets our vote.”
“Not the result we were looking for,” said Ottawa centre Zack Smith. “When you have 50 shots you expect to score more than one goal but I guess they weren’t quality scoring chances.”
Both sides were acutely aware of the stakes in this game. “Anyone would be lying if they said they don’t look at the standings,” said Smith.
Nerves were clearly on display early in this important match. Passes were missed, plays were misread. Highlights of the first period included a meaningless wrestling bout between Ottawa’s Matt Kassian and Frazer McLaren and an angry fan tossing his drink when an early Toronto goal by Phaneuf was cancelled due to goaltender interference.
Ottawa had by far the better of the play most of the night, outshooting the Leafs 18-5 in the opening period, but they could not get a puck past Reimer, who entered the game with an impressive 5-0 record at Scotiabank Place.
The Senators again dominated the shot clock in the second period – 17-9 – yet it was Toronto shooter James van Riemsdyk who found success against Craig Anderson.
Van Riemsdyk scored first by tipping a Cody Franson blast from the point, and scored his 18 of the season on a power play, courtesy of Zack Smith’s high-sticking penalty. Phil Kessel picked up assists on both goals to raise his team-leading points total to 48.
Ottawa finally scored with only 42 seconds left in the middle period when Jakob Silfverberg, Ottawa’s best player on the night, used linemate Mika Zibanejad as a screen to beat Reimer from well out.
Late in the period Nazem Kadri, at the end of a long shift, scored on a wrist shot that somehow leaked through Anderson and into the Ottawa net. It was a rear weak goal – for both Kadri and Anderson.
Joffrey Lupul took it to 4-1 on a breakaway that came out of a bumbled Ottawa attack in the dying minutes. Anderson got a piece of the shot, but it floated on over his shoulder and into the net.
No matter, the Toronto Maple Leafs, thanks in no small part to Reimer’s 49 saves this night, are off to the post-season; the Ottawa Senators are chewing their nails.
“That was a tough one,” said a disappointed Smith. “Being division rivals and so close to them. Going into it, it felt like the biggest game of the year so it makes for a tough loss.”