Finally, we can all stop pretending.
For nine seasons now – minus lockouts – Ottawa and Toronto have had to make like North and South Korea: sabre rattling endlessly, growling at each other and inventing slights at every turn. The booing of the captains shelf life was up years ago, as the so-called Battle of Ontario barely amounted to the odd scuffle.
But that shouldn't be the case this spring.
The Leafs and Senators met Saturday night in Ottawa with something real on the line once again. With only a win separating them, both teams held a firm grip on the postseason. Barring unexpected stumbles, both should make the playoffs.
The Senators, however, did stumble, and badly, falling 4-0 in a game completely dominated by Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul, with four points apiece.
Kadri's natural hat trick, one goal in the second period, two in the third, give him 17 for the season and moved the youngster firmly into the top 10 of league scoring.
Despite this one-sided victory by Toronto, the stars and stats could still align that they would meet each other once again in a true Battle that would take place in the playoffs. Both teams now have 44 points – the Senators with one game in hand – and sit firmly in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings.
Ottawa and Toronto's first postseason meeting took place in the spring of 2000, with the Leafs winning in six games. They met in 2001 in the first round, the Senators fully expected to win, and the Leafs swept them.
For the third straight spring, they clashed in a second round series that went to seven games, the Leafs winners in a series best remembered for the Daniel Alfredsson hit on Darcy Tucker, a hit Toronto fans believed dirty and Ottawa fans celebrated as it immediately led to the game-winning goal for their captain.
The hatred turned visceral after that. The loathing for Alfredsson reached new heights, and stuck fast, following his fake toss of a broken stick into the Toronto crowd, that Leafs fans took as a shot at their captain Mats Sundin, who had previously tossed a broken stick.
In 2004, they met for a fourth time in five years in the playoffs, Ottawa once again losing.
And in every game since, the headlines and broadcasts have pretended like the Battle of Ontario is on again.
Saturday night the atmosphere leading into the opening faceoff was real, not forced. The split crowd of 20,183 booed the captains and cheered anything that even resembled a rush. Fight promoter Don Cherry, on hand for Hockey Night In Canada, stood on the ice and announced how eagerly he was looking forward to a bout between Toronto enforcer Frazer McLaren and new Ottawa patrolman Matt Kassian. On command, the two delivered, the ridiculous arranged fight having no bearing whatsoever on the game and both players being rewarded with their precious majors.
With so much on the line, the game began poorly for Ottawa and stayed that way. Lupul scored on the first power play of the game, courtesy of an Alfredsson hooking penalty. Lupul merely tipped a pass from Kadri in under Ottawa goaltender Ben Bishop, who misplayed it.
Soft or not, the goal was Lupul's eighth goal in the mere six games he has played since returning from a broken arm.
"We had a great start," said Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle. "Any time you get a decent start on the road, you have a chance."
"I'm really confident with the puck right now," Lupul conceded. He said he and Kadri had even discussed trying to go five-hole on big Bishop, as video work had convinced the Leafs he might be weak there.
The Senators largely shot themselves in the foot in this important battle. Late in the second period, the Leafs again had a man advantage on a delay penalty thanks to an obvious Chris Neil trip. Lupul and Kadri again connected, only this time it was Kadri getting his 15 of the season when he chipped in a Lupul rebound.
The Senators could find no luck this night. Twice Guillaume Latendresse was sent in on clean breakaways but could not get the puck past Toronto goaltender James Reimer, who was solid all night as well as at times lucky. Late in the second, with an empty Toronto net only feet away, Alfredsson saw his shot fly over the net and out of harm's way. In the first period, Ottawa's Jim O'Brien put a shot off the post on a shorthanded rush. Another goal was waved off by the officials after a quick whistle.
In the third period, whatever wheels were left fell off the Senators. Toronto went ahead 3-0 on a mind-bobbling brain cramp by Ottawa rookie Jakob Silfverberg, who sent Lupul a perfect pass from the corner, leaving Lupul and Kadri all alone in front of Bishop. One quick pass and Kadri had his second goal of the night.
The goal was so embarrassing they didn't even put the replay on the scoreboard.
Kadri had his hat trick, and 17 goal of the season, only moments later when, once again, Lupul fed a perfect pass and Kadri's hard wristshot was behind Bishop.
"They made some mistakes and we capitalized," said Lupul.
"It's two points on a team we want to catch."
The Leafs fans – those who hadn't been ejected for unruly behavior – showered the ice with caps after Kadri's third marker.
"It was awesome," said Kadri. "It's a great atmosphere. I always love to come here to play.
"I guess it was just one of those nights. My linemates were playing great and set me up and I managed to put it in the back of the net."
The real highlight, Kadri claimed was receiving "a peck on the check" from Cherry in a post-game interview.
The game wound down with some dreary bull-snorting by the goons in the final minute that merely delayed the drive home for the few fans still remaining.
Though both teams are equal in the standings, it would seem that the Battle of Ontario, however important it might once again be, has become rather one-sided. The Leafs have now won five of their past six matches against the Senators.
Given this reality, and the history of earlier postseason Battles of Ontario, Ottawa might be well advised to scout out some other battlegrounds.