Saturday, October 21, 2017

Saturday storylines: Battle of Ontario edition

Welcome to the season’s third Saturday of NHL hockey. We’ve got another big Atlantic Division battle between Canadian teams, a crucial afternoon game for a coach on the hot seat, and two teams battling pre-season expectations. Also, a brief history of water bottles. It’s an eclectic mix. Here we go…

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Senators

Let’s be honest — the Battle of Ontario hasn’t really been a thing for a decade or so.

Not in the way it used to be. It’s still a rivalry, one based on geography and a shared division, and those things don’t tend to change. So sure, a matchup between the Senators and Maple Leafs still matters more than your typical game.

But it’s not like it once was. Nobody’s making guarantees, or fake-throwing sticks, or diving onto benches. It’s been a while since a goalie tackled a referee or a defenceman got rag-dolled, and we haven’t heard a “boo hoo” or an overtime “PING” in a while now.

That’s largely because the two teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 2004. And it’s not hard to figure out where the blame lies for that streak — the Maple Leafs have been terrible for most of the last decade.

But as you may have noticed, they’re not terrible right now. At 6-1-0, the Leafs are off to one of the best starts in the league, not to mention one of the best in franchise history. According to the oddsmakers, they’re now the Stanley Cup favourites. They’re young and skilled and fun, and you either love watching them or you’re already sick of hearing about them. Either way, you’re well aware that the Maple Leafs are rivalry-worthy again.

And sure, the Senators may need to get in line behind the Habs or Bruins or Blackhawks or whoever else. But they have a well-earned place in that line. And tonight, they get their first crack at this year’s Maple Leafs. No doubt, Senators fans would love nothing more than to see their team hit the pause button on the runaway Leafs’ hype train.

To do it, the Sens will need to show a better game than they have so far in a disappointing week. They’ve lost two straight since welcoming back Erik Karlsson, dropping home games against two of last season’s weaker teams on the Canucks and Devils. That comes on the heels of last week’s dominant road trip, so it’s fair to say we’re still trying to figure out what exactly the Senators are going to be this year.

The same could be said for the Leafs, who have had their ups and downs early on, occasionally looking like the same flawed team that kept blowing crucial leads last year. But so far this season, those leads are mostly staying in tact, often because the Leafs just keep scoring. Coaches always talk about wanting to see a 60-minute effort, and no doubt Mike Babcock has mentioned it to his players once or twice. But the Leafs are looking like a team that can hit the snooze button every now and then, only to wake up and pump home two or three goals to flip a game on its head.

This is the first of four meetings between the two rivals. They don’t meet again until January 10, at which point they play three times in a month. And that will be it… at least for the regular season. As for renewing that playoff rivalry, there’s always a chance. But you know, no guarantees.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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