OTTAWA - The Battle of Ontario wasn’t supposed to shape up this way this spring.
With eight days left in the regular season, the Maple Leafs are officially eliminated from the playoffs and the Senators are two victories away from clinching a return to the post-season for the first time since 2010.
While the Senators have missed the playoffs two out of the last three seasons, the Leafs haven’t played a post-season game at the Air Canada Centre since 2004.
GM Brian Burke was hired by the board of directors at MLSE to turn the Leafs into contenders. Now, he’s under the same kind of heat Senators GM Bryan Murray felt last spring.
Every move Burke has made is under the microscope and analyzed.
So, what happened?
Depending on what takes place around them, the Senators can book a spot in the spring dance as early as this weekend with road wins over the Flyers and Islanders.
The Leafs? It’s almost golf season.
Here are five things that have gone the Senators’ way:
Centre Jason Spezza
He has bought into the Senators’ rebuild since Day 1. He has 81 points in 76 games — 41 of those on the road — and has taken his game to another level.
The Leafs don’t have that kind of game-breaker. Burke failed in his bid to land Brad Richards last July in free agency and then signed Tim Connolly, who’s been hurt most of the season and hasn’t produced when he’s played.
Spezza has shown maturity, has made a difference when the Senators have needed him and he’s led by example.
“He’s had a Hart Trophy candidate year,” said former Columbus GM Doug MacLean, a Rogers Sportsnet analyst. “He’s made the young kids better and he’s thrived on it.”
The resurgence of Daniel Alfredsson
The Senators can count on their captain.
The same can’t be said for Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf.
Phaneuf’s leadership capabilities have always come into question and the Leafs are going to have to take a hard look at the ‘C’ this summer. It’s Randy Carlyle’s right to change his captain. Phaneuf was chosen by Ron Wilson.
At age 39, Alfredsson had his eighth 25-plus goal season. It’s first since 2007-08 — when he scored 40. Alfredsson can communicate with teammates, coaching staff, media and fans alike. He gets the job done on all fronts.
“Alfredsson is their leader and he’s been great. He was a piece the franchise had in place and he’s a guy everybody respects,” said MacLean.
Erik Karlsson’s incredible season
The Super Swede is a candidate for the NHL’s Norris Trophy as top blueliner.
The Leafs haven’t got anybody close in that category.
Jake Gardiner is a strong prospect and a player any other franchise would take. He will not be moved. Luke Schenn was supposed to be that kind of player, but his confidence has been beaten down in the difficult Toronto market.
Schenn could get a ticket out of town as Burke continues his rebuild.
Karlsson, a pending restricted free agent, is going to be in for a big raise this off-season and Senators will have to pay
The 21-year-old is a franchise player. He is a game-breaker. The Leafs still need one in this area badly.
The play of Craig Anderson
This is the best move Murray made during the re-tool last spring.
The Senators identified Anderson as the guy they were going to chase on the free-agent market. Murray, assistant GM Tim Murray and chief scout Pierre Dorion knew the relationship between Anderson and the Avalanche had soured.
Dealing the struggling Brian Elliott to Colorado turned out to be a brilliant move.
If it hadn’t been for an accident in his kitchen, Anderson likely would have played 70 games this season. He’s been reliable and strong.
This is the area where the Leafs have struggled the most because neither James Reimer nor Jonas Gustavsson has gotten the job done. If Burke doesn’t address this area, the Leafs won’t be any better next season.
The hiring of coach Paul MacLean
It didn’t take long for Ron Wilson to wear out his welcome after getting a contract extension for Christmas.
The players stopped listening to Wilson after the all-star break. The fans started calling for his head in the stands. The situation was such that Burke had no choice but to make a change and turn to Randy Carlyle.
MacLean had no NHL head-coaching experience, but he had plenty of work with a strong program in Detroit and is a former NHLer. He has the respect of his players.
“I really underestimated what a difference MacLean would make for that room,” said Doug MacLean. “The respect those players have for him in replacing Cory Clouston has been huge. I didn’t know the impact that could have.”