I know fans of the Ottawa Senators want a rival to paint as the evil empire, but the team’s rivalry with their next door neighbor isn’t that great.
It’s a rivalry that writes itself. Both teams are in the same conference and division. Both teams are situated in the same country and province, with their arenas just four hours apart, meaning fans from both teams can travel and enjoy the hostilities at home or on the road. It has all of the ingredients for a special rivalry.
Unfortunately, it is time to rain on the parade: “The Battle of Ontario” sucks.
When you think of the best rivalries in the NHL, you think of Rangers-Islanders, Penguins-Capitals, Canadiens-Maple Leafs. Your mind does not think of the Senators-Maple Leafs “rivalry” that just can’t compare to other NHL blood feuds.
A Promising Start
That’s not to say this potential rivalry didn’t have clout at one point in time. When the Senators returned to the NHL in 1992 the Sens-Leafs feud returned with a vengeance . From 1992 to 2001 the Sens made the playoffs five times while the Leafs qualified seven times. The two sides actually met in the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals in 2000 and 2001, with Toronto taking the series 4-2 and 4-0, respectively.
Everything was in place for “The Battle of Ontario” to stand the test of time.
Then the Toronto Maple Leafs started to suck chunks.
A Brutal Decline
The two sides met once again in the 2004 Quarter-Finals, which the Leafs won in seven games, but then things began unravel for Toronto. After the 2004-05 lockout, the Leafs would miss the playoffs in 2005-06, ending a six season playoff streak.
Meanwhile, the Senators would qualify for the ninth consecutive postseason, this time under new head coach Bryan Murray. From there the rivalry would lose all of its luster.
From 2005-15, the Senators would make the playoffs seven times, including a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2007. The Leafs would play postseason hockey in just one season (2012-13) during that time, which included a seven season absence from 2005-2012.
Then, after years of failure, the Maple Leafs underwent an extensive rebuild and made the playoffs in 2017. That same year the Sens made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. It looked like the rivalry was about to be revived.
Then the Ottawa Senators started to suck chunks.
With the Sens on the precipice of an enormous rebuild, it may take several years for this rivalry to gain any relevance again.
Both Teams Have to be Good
It brings me to the overarching point. A rivalry is only good when it is competitive and both teams are at the top of their game. When one team is good and one is bad the games lose any special meaning they may have had.
For the longest time the Senators were the top team in Ontario while the Leafs were sitting in the basement, which explains the Sens’ 62-43-3-9 record against the Leafs since returning to the league. With rivalries like the Bruins and Habs, you remember the clashes more vividly because both teams were contenders whenever they met. In recent years between the Sens and Leafs, one team has usually been a contender for the Stanley Cup while the other is a contender for the first overall pick. There’s no drama, no real concern that a game will have an effect on the playoff race.
As the Toronto Maple Leafs and, eventually, the Ottawa Senators fell in the standings, so did the interest in this already tedious rivalry. Yes the Sens may have won the first meeting of the season against the Leafs, but how many of you are going to remember that game in two years’ time? “The Battle of Ontario” will always have the potential to be a memorable rivalry, but as it stands it has all of the stakes of an after-school pick-up game.