Battle of Ontario actually means something

TORONTO -- The Battle of Ontario has only been missing one thing in the past few years. The battle.

Oh, sure, fans of the Senators and Maple Leafs still dislike each other, but no matter how you skin it, it’s been a good half decade since Ottawa and Toronto have played meaningful games against each other.

Until now.

Starting with Tuesday night’s tilt at the Air Canada Centre and the remaining two encounters Feb. 4 and March 17, there’s a chance this once burning rivalry might just be rekindled, with both teams in contention for a playoff spot.

"Just looking at the standings, we anticipate this will be a team that we’re going to battle with the whole year for one of those playoff spots," Leafs first-line winger Joffrey Lupul said Tuesday morning after the skate. "So every time we’re going to play them, it’s going to be huge."

Not since the 2006-07 season have both teams played games each other this late in the season that truly mattered in the standings for both, the Sens ultimately going to the Cup finals that season and the Leafs missing out on the playoffs on the final day.

Otherwise, these matchups have largely been empty of any true meaning to at least one of the teams, the Leafs having missed the playoffs every year since the lockout and the Senators two of the past three years.

"It’s good that both teams are up in the thick of it going into the second half. It brings the intensity into these games,’’ said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson.

Well, he would know about the true Battle of Ontario. The 39-year-old Swede is one of the very few holdovers from those playoff tilts against Toronto. He’s still reviled in these parts for something he did in a playoff game here almost 10 years ago in the spring of 2002. His hit from behind on former Leafs winger Darcy Tucker in ’02 still gets Alfredsson booed whenever he touches the puck at the Air Canada Centre.

What does he expect for Tuesday night?

"It’ll be same as usual,’’ he said Tuesday morning, smiling.

Thing is, you won’t find too many souls on the Leafs roster that have a clue why the fans boo Alfredsson. The team doesn't have a single holdover from the last payoff series against Ottawa, in April 2004, and only one player on their roster actually was born in Ontario (Nazem Kadri) and might have grown up watching those playoff series.

So, yeah, the whole Battle of Ontario thing is lost on most of the current Leafs players, at least until they create their own version.

Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur at least remembers those Battle of Ontario playoff series.

"(Former Senator) Wade Redden is from where I’m from, Lloydminster (Alberta),’’ MacArthur said Tuesday morning. "I used to watch those games all the time. They had some great series. It always seemed like Ottawa was better in the regular season and get knocked off by the Maple Leafs, who would bang and crash in the playoffs. Those were always great series to watch.’’

And that’s just the rub, isn’t it? The Battle of Ontario was all too one-sided despite rosters that were of equal skill. The Senators managed a trip to the Cup finals in ’07 and a conference finals berth in ’03, but never were able to beat the rival Leafs, losing all four playoff series to Toronto in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004. Those Leaf teams under Pat Quinn reached the conference finals in 1999 and 2002 but never beyond. But they had Ottawa’s number, though.

"It never worked out well in our favor, so it’s tough to accept that,’’ veteran Senators blue-liner Chris Phillips, another holdover from that era, told ESPN.com Tuesday morning. "I think one year we played them 6-7 times in the regular season, won every one, then go into the playoffs and they swept us. They always had a veteran team. Those guys stepped up. They rose to the challenge. I think it was in ’04 when in Game 7 Joe Nieuwendyk had a big night for them. They found a way.’’

Phillips just knows he’s never experienced anything like it. That was a true rivalry in those playoff series.

"It was intense,’’ he said. "Never mind game to game, every shift was a battle. It hard-hitting and fun to be a part of.’’

And just maybe, if both teams can stay in the race over the next three months, it might be fun again.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.