The Battle of Ontario is back – on paper, anyway.
The problem was translating it onto the ice Saturday night as the Ottawa Senators – looking alarmingly like last year’s stumbling team – were routed 5-0 by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It should never have gone this way, given that both teams are barely hanging onto playoff positions and the falling Senators, having lost five games in a row heading into the match, needed to put some distance between themselves and the rising Leafs.
Seventh-place Ottawa went into the contest with a three-point lead over the Leafs, who held down the eighth and final playoff spot, and now stand but a single point in front, with the Leafs having three games in hand. The Washington Capitals are also closing that gap that, only two weeks ago, appeared to promise Ottawa a return to playoff action.
The Senators, the great surprise of the NHL during the first half of the season, showed this night why some are saying they might also be the surprise of the second half – only in the opposite direction.
“We just have to play with emotion instead of going through the motions,” said a disappointed Jared Cowan, Ottawa’s young defenceman.
“That was disappointing,” added centre Jason Spezza. “We’ve got to find a way to start winning some games.”
Entering this game having lost five in a row, the Senators played much of the night as if they were, once again, the discombobulated, confused Senators of a year ago, when management decided to blow up the current roster heading into the trading deadline and start the current season with multiple new faces, a new coach and new resolve. Up to recently, it had worked wonders.
However, through two early power plays today’s Senators were incapable of sustaining pressure in the Toronto end. The best scoring chances, in fact, went to the shorthanded Leafs.
“We’re pretty confident on the bench,” head coach Ron Wilson said of the Toronto penalty kill. “It’s an entirely different feeling now.”
Toronto went ahead 1-0 when Phil Kessel swept down the left side and fired a hard shot that Ottawa defenceman Matt Carkner blocked. Kessel, however, picked up the rebound and fired a hard wrist shot to the far side of the net past goaltender Craig Anderson.
Wilson said when Kessel gets a quick start to his game, as happened this night, “you can feel it.
“He had a lot of energy.”
Toronto went ahead by two on their own power play when Kessel threaded a brilliant pass across to pinching defenceman Dion Phaneuf and the Toronto captain quickly beat Anderson.
Kessel, clearly the star of the night, later made a seeing-eye pass half the length of the Scotiabank Place ice surface when he sent Tyler Bozak in alone in the second period and Bozak flipped the puck over a falling Anderson.
Playing his 16th straight game, Anderson looked tired at times, though he was ill-served by his teammates, who seemed unable to attack and at times had trouble defending.
The game should have had for more intensity, given the reality of the standings and the air of expectation that greeted the players as they skated out for the warm-up. The sellout crowd of 20,500 seemed split almost perfectly in half. Early scoreboard close-ups of Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, as beloved as North Korea’s Dear Leader only a week earlier in the All-Star game, produced loud, drawn-out booing by the thousands of blue-and-white jerseys in attendance. Ottawa fans, of course, cheered just as loudly in retaliation.
The game itself, however, failed to live up to that early billing. The best hit of the night was on the scoreboard, when a small youngster encouraged by his mother to swing his mini-stick, clobbered the fan sitting directly in front.
And the Senators could not score – even though they were using real sticks.
Luke Schenn, with his second goal of the season, raised the lead to 4-0 for the Leafs when he was sent a cross-ice pass by Bozak, walked in and fired a hard wrist shot past Anderson. It was Bozak’s third point of the night. Joffrey Lupul had gotten the puck to Bozak, giving Lupul his second assist.
Later in the third period, Cody Franson scored when the Ottawa defence, baffled by themselves, allowed the defenceman to slip in to the corner of the net, where he calmly wrested the puck into the short side.
James Reimer, playing only as required, had the easy shutout despite the clock claiming he saw 49 shots. Few were dangerous.
“It looks like he’s found his game,” Wilson said of his previously struggling goaltender.
Reimer was understandably delighted with his shutout. “I wish I could take credit for it,” he said, “but we had guys who played unbelievable.”
The Kessel-Lupul-Bozak line had eight points in the game and led the charge in this Battle of Ontario that so badly fizzled.
“We’re chasing these guys,” said Lupul. “It’s a team that we marked. We want to pass these guys.”
The Senators certainly played like marked men this night as they dropped their sixth straight game.
Was that All-Star Game really only a week ago?