TORONTO - The pursuit of a playoff spot and the looming arrival of crunch time for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators has put some of the animosity back into the Battle of Ontario.
A once intensely bitter rivalry that fizzled as both clubs sank toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings picked up several notches Saturday night. Players used their shoulders, sticks and fists to attack their opponents in a contest more reminiscent of the wild affairs of years past than the tame get togethers from earlier this season.
"The games mean more now than they did earlier in the season," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said after his team's 3-1 victory. "I think we saw (Saturday) that Ottawa's suddenly realized that they better start acting desperate if they want to have any shot of making the playoffs at all. They've got a heck of a mountain to climb.
"I think they showed some intensity and that was good for us, we responded."
Neither team has much time to waste if they hope to make the playoffs as the season's midpoint rapidly approaches. Soon the pretenders will give way to the contenders.
The Maple Leafs (16-17-6) are five points behind the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East but have the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers between them. For their own sake, they needed a victory and a determined effort Saturday after putrid losses in four of their five previous outings.
The road-weary Senators, meanwhile, are in much worse shape. After Sunday's 4-3 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils the Sens are at 13-18-6, a whopping 11 points back of Buffalo. Despite their best efforts to physically wear down the Maple Leafs, they failed to build any momentum from a 3-2 victory Tuesday at Edmonton that ended their 12-game road winless streak.
"There was a lot of trying, a lot of battling, a lot of competing," said Senators coach Craig Hartsburg. "It was a tough, hard battle."
The gritty affair came on Canadian Forces Appreciation Night at the Air Canada Centre. Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Walter Natynczyk and his family handled the ceremonial faceoff before joining the crowd in singing O Canada.
The ill will began on the first shift when Jason Spezza got his hands in Dominic Moore's face on a hit against the boards and later speared his opponent in the stomach to trigger the first of many post-whistle scrums.
Mike Fisher and Chris Neil went at every blue shirt they could while Jonas Frogren and Jeff Finger drove several white jerseys into the boards. Nik Antropov crushed Sens blue-liner Anton Volchenkov against the glass in the third period, leaving him with a right shoulder injury.
"Both teams are fighting pretty hard to compete for a playoff spot and they came out with a good competitive edge," said Moore. "I thought it was good that we matched it, we've got more games against these guys, as well, so any two points is huge."
Alexei Ponikarovsky scored the winner midway through the third period, ripping a wrist shot past Martin Gerber to break a 1-1 tie. He took a pass from Pavel Kubina, who had flown out of the penalty box and scooped up a loose puck just inside the Senators blue-line.
Jason Blake then extended the lead to 3-1 with 4:09 left, extinguishing the chances of an Ottawa comeback.
Moore settled the Maple Leafs with his goal in the second period that knotted the score 1-1. Daniel Alfredsson opened the scoring in the first period as the Senators controlled the play and had an edge in physical play.
"We knew they were going to come out fast and hard," said Blake. "We kind of caught ourselves watching them skate around and being physical. Obviously between periods we kind of talked about what we need to do and I thought the second and third periods we did exactly that."
The Senators still have stops in Buffalo on Tuesday and Boston on Thursday before their gruelling eight-game road trip comes to an end. Their next home game is Jan. 10 versus the New York Rangers.
The teams split their first two meetings this season. Their next clash is Feb. 28 at Ottawa.