Ottawa Senators\' Mike Fisher(12) and Chris Phillips take out Florida Panthers\' Michael Frolik, of Czech Republic, during first period NHL hockey action in Ottawa Wednesday Oct. 22, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson
TORONTO - The animosity and passion that used to be a staple of the Battle of Ontario is likely to be missing when the once fierce rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators resumes Saturday night.
Things have changed greatly for both teams, and many of the key players who made the matchups of recent years must-watch games are toiling elsewhere now.
The rebuilding Maple Leafs (2-2-3) are without Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe and Wade Belak, while the Senators (2-4-1), trying to redefine themselves, no longer have Wade Redden and Brian McGrattan.
And with both teams also at the bottom of the Northeast Division standings, the Air Canada Centre clash (7 p.m. ET) pits a pair of clubs trying to find their way, rather than the two bitter foes picking up their ill-will.
"I don't think a lot of our guys even understand the rivalry so we'll approach it as another game," head coach Ron Wilson said after practice Friday. "You don't get overamped, try too hard, our guys just have to focus on the little details that we've been stressing in practice.
"It's irrelevant, really, who we play. We played a lot of the top teams in the league and you have to fight and scramble for any kind of opportunity you get, and Ottawa falls right into that same category."
The Leafs will head into their first of six regular-season meetings against the Sens looking to build on an encouraging 4-2 road win over the Boston Bruins on Thursday. They played smart defensively in that contest, got timely scoring and showed a willingness to go the net that has been inconsistent thus far.
Still, there are likely to be changes in the lineup.
Forward Jiri Tlusty found himself practising with the green jersey reserved for fourth-liners and healthy scratches Friday while Jason Blake, a healthy scratch Thursday, skated in his spot alongside Alex Steen and Dominic Moore.
"I didn't play well the last three games so that's what happens," said Tlusty. "I have to start doing things better in practice and get better."
The demotion suggests Tlusty is the latest player to end up in Wilson's doghouse, although it also may hint at a demotion to the AHL Marlies to make room on the roster for defenceman Jeff Finger, who is ready to return from a foot injury.
Wilson didn't go that far in his comments Friday, but made clear there's room for improvement.
"He's a young guy and his confidence might be down," said Wilson. "Whether he's in or out we'll decide (Saturday). He's a young guy who's going to be a big part of this organization, he's only 20 years old so I'm not very concerned about him."
Finger's looming return will give the Leafs nine defencemen on the roster. Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian White have been the odd men out as of late and if Finger plays, someone else will have to sit, too.
"It is good competition, (but) I've got a lot of guys coming to see me, 'Why aren't I in there, what do I have to do?' It's awful hard," said Wilson. "We win a game, we play really well defensively, it's hard to crack the lineup."
Finger, signed to a US$14-million, four-year deal in the off-season, would be making his Maple Leafs debut should he indeed be activated off injured reserve and would love to do it against the Senators.
"I've heard a lot about (the rivalry), watched it on TV," he said, "but it would be neat to experience it first-hand."
Of course it won't be like it was at the beginning of the decade, when the Maple Leafs beat the Senators in four playoff series over five years. Ottawa often dominated the regular-season games only to fall apart when things really mattered.
That led to loads of hype ahead of every meeting, something that has ebbed post-lockout as the Leafs stumbled through three straight playoff-free seasons.
The dislike for one another that once existed has faded, although Steen believes the rivalry is still there.
"I don't see why it would change," he said. "The atmosphere in the stands is still going to be the same and they're a divisional rival that we need to beat in order to be ahead of them at the end of the season.
"We're both in a similar situation, we both have the same amount of points, they have two less than us, and it's going to be a battle. But it's going to be a battle against every team this year."
After years of tepid rivalry games versus Tampa Bay and Carolina with the Florida Panthers, Leafs defenceman Mike Van Ryn is eager to experience a game versus the Senators and all that comes with it.
He attended some of the playoff games between the teams in years past and expects there to be some added drama Saturday.
"For young guys, that's a great experience for them," he said. "I played in the Southeast (Division) where there's not so much of that going on. There's just divisional rivals, those are four-point games and when you play the same team a bunch, there's certain guys you don't get along with, but that's something special."
At least it was.
"I know how the fans feel about those games," said Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala. "I don't honestly feel a big difference, maybe because I'm from Europe."
His best point of comparison were the Tampere derby matches in Finland when Ilves, his favourite team, and Tappara clashed.
"Those wins and losses, you felt those stronger," said Toskala. "Personally, I haven't had the same feeling here yet."