Bitter rivalry only getting better

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:04 AM ET

It doesn't have the elegant, old-money feel, the tradition that makes Montreal-Toronto so special. But there is an argument to be made that the Ottawa Senators have become the rival that preoccupies the Maple Leafs and their fans more than any other.

For people under the age of 50 who cut their hockey teeth in an era when the Canadiens were so good and the Leafs so bad, it was sometimes a stretch to think of them being in the same league, let alone mortal enemies. Even recently, back in the same division of the NHL, there just doesn't seem to have been a lot of chemistry.

Ah, but Ottawa and Toronto is a different story. Ottawa hates Toronto on general principal and recent playoff history that so favours the Leafs when the two teams have hooked up only makes their collective obsession more focused.

Tonight marks the third of eight meetings between the Sens and Leafs this season and the early returns clearly show that Ottawa is going to be even more of a handful for the Leafs. General manager John Muckler finally has his own people in place, or at least in places where he thought they were needed. That includes Bryan Murray as coach and a generally-accepted upgrade in the sandpaper department. Where once they were a classic trapping team under Jacques Martin, the Sens have become one of the league's high-octane outfits.

"They've got a lot more offence now," Bryan McCabe said. "But gritty? Who knows. We'll see. It's a long year."

In their first meeting, the Senators stormed from behind in the dying moments, forced overtime, then Dominik Hasek smothered Toronto in the shootout. A week later, in Ottawa, after 65 minutes of hockey failed to break a 5-5 tie, Hasek once again buried Toronto's shooters and Ottawa won 6-5.

The Leafs are not crazy about giving Ottawa credit for anything but the two extra points.

"Yeah, it's two extra points they got," Jason Allison said. "But, really, as a team you don't feel like you lost. It's an extra point but mentally, it's not like losing."

In the two games against Toronto, Hasek has surrendered seven goals. In the other four games he has played thus far, he has given up only five more. So the Leafs have proven they can beat him, but they didn't get so much as a sniff in those shootout losses and that's the kind of mastery that can get inside a team's head.

The Senators seemed a no-brain pick as a Stanley Cup contender even before the season started and nothing they've done since then would have changed anybody's opinion. With Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza leading the way offensively, they have become a scoring machine. Toronto coach Pat Quinn understands that this edition of the Senators is good, but he always figured they were good.

"They were tough before and they're tough now," Quinn said yesterday. "They play a little different style but they always have had good personnel. They were a good offensive club before. I think they've led in scoring a couple different years. Offence was never their problem, if they had a problem."

Oh, they had a problem all right. In the playoffs, they couldn't beat Toronto. No matter how sturdy the Ottawa credentials, something always seemed to give way and more often than not, it came down to a matter of will. The Leafs just had more of it.

The Sens remain the youngest team in the league but amid that youth is plenty of experience, especially at the hands of the Leafs. As this team matures, it can only become more dangerous, especially since it now has The Dominator, Hasek.

Sure, he's 40 but age is only a number, especially as fit as he is. And, as good as he is, he's even more determined and that can only snowball into tremendous confidence for his teammates.

And that can only bring an even sharper edge to this blood feud that has become, yes, even more entertaining than anything from a bygone era.


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