Five things to watch for in the “Battle” of Ontario

The Leafs will look to continue their unbeaten streak out of the All-Star break as they head to Ottawa to take on the Senators. The Sens will, uh, probably also look for the Leafs to remain undefeated out of the All-Star break as they tank for Alexis Lafreniere.

1. Jason Spezza faces the Sens as a Leaf

This will be the first time the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators have played each other since all the way back on opening night on Oct. 2. It’ll also be the first time that Jason Spezza faces his former club with his hometown team.

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As you surely remember, Mike Babcock inexplicably benched Spezza for the Leafs’ season opener against the Sens despite the veteran forward having a handful of family and friends in attendance. Can you remember who made it into the lineup instead of Spezza in that game? It was Nick Shore. That’s right, Nick Shore. Babcock so badly needed to get Nick Shore into the game that Spezza, the Ottawa Senators legend, couldn’t open the season for his hometown club, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in front of his family.

Anyways, we’re in a better place now. It’ll be funny seeing Spezza playing in Ottawa with a Leafs jersey on.

2. This isn’t really actually a rivalry

Sticking with Spezza for a moment, it’s important to note that the Battle of Ontario isn’t really a battle at all. There isn’t a rivalry here. Spezza, who spent the majority of his career in Ottawa, can confirm that:

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The bigger rivalry here is between fans of the Ottawa Senators and the owner of the Ottawa Senators, Eugene Melnyk. Sens fans don’t have time to worry about the Leafs when they have Melnyk doing things like forcing out the team’s entire core shortly after their near run to the Stanley Cup Final because he doesn’t want to pay anybody and threatening to move the team during their outdoor Winter Classic game.

Sens fans have responded to Melnyk with their wallets as the Senators have the lowest average attendance of any NHL club this season, averaging just 12,269 fans per game. The sentiment in Ottawa is that if Melnyk isn’t going to pay to put a good product on the ice, nobody is going to pay to watch it. You can’t really blame the fans for that.

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The closest thing we’ve seen recently that might spark some kind of rivalry was when a bunch of Sens players wet their pants over Auston Matthews checking to see who Scott Sabourin was during a pre-season game this fall. Even then? Meh.

That said, while there’s no rivalry here, it’s imperative for the Leafs to beat the Senators. Last year, the Leafs went 1-3 against the lowly Sens and it was the difference between having home-ice in the playoffs against the Bruins. This year, their record against this basement team could be the difference between making it and not. There aren’t many easy points up for grab in the NHL. You gotta take them when you can.

3. Travis Dermott is sick, so Martin Marincin is in

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Everyone went bananas yesterday because Travis Dermott wasn’t at the team’s practice. A player missing practice?! It surely means he was TRADED for a DEFENCEMAN that I WANT there’s no other explanation! Well, Dermott is still a Leaf and Josh Manson is still a Duck and Matt Dumba is still a Wild (???) and so on and so on. This is because he missed practice due to an illness. He’ll be out of the lineup tonight because of it and Martin Marincin will slot in.

The lines, courtesy of Daily Faceoff…

4. It’s Michael Hutchinson time

Remember when Michael Hutchinson had that huge 33-save shutout against the New York Islanders back in early January? That game capped off a personal three-game winning streak for Hutch in which he posted a .945 save percentage.

Since then? The Leafs’ backup has played in two games. In the first one, he allowed three goals on 16 shots in relief of Frederik Andersen in a loss to the Oilers. In the next one, he allowed four goals on 17 shots also in relief on Andersen in a loss to the Panthers. That’s a .788 save percentage over his last two showings.

With the trade deadline approaching, Hutchinson is auditioning for his job. Getting shelled by the Sens tonight would make this issue hard for Kyle Dubas to ignore.

5.Auston Matthews is only four goals away from 40

As we already know, Auston Matthews is on fire. Over his late 20 games, he has 19 goals. Since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock, Matthews’ usage is up and he has 22 goals in 28 games. That’s a 64-goal pace under Keefe.

There’s no doubt that, barring injury, Matthews will shatter his career-high of 40 goals he set during his rookie season back in 2016-17. In fact, he could reasonably tie his career-high tonight. All it’ll take is a four-goal performance, which is something we’ve seen him do against this Senators club.