"Battle of Ontario" Now the Special Olympics

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If you're about my age, you have a burning hatred of the Ottawa Senators, coupled with fond memories of the rivalry between the Sens and the Leafs—particularly the four playoff series between the two teams, and especially the part in said rivalry where the heroes in blue and white go 4 for 4 in winning said series.

But does anyone else get the feeling that this rivalry has been moving rapidly downhill since the lockout?

Now, don't get me wrong—I still maintain a healthy hatred of the Sens. I watched with fear and loathing as the Sens somehow made it to the Cup Finals in 2007, and celebrated with glee as they were systematically destroyed by the Anaheim Ducks. I will gladly boo Alfie whenever he touches the puck, even if I'm watching the game at home.

There will never be a team in the NHL that I hate more than the Ottawa Senators, and there will always be a place in my heart reserved for complete and utter contempt for that team.

That said, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize a lot has changed since April 20, 2004, when the Leafs bested the Senators 4-1 in Game Seven of the Eastern Quarterfinals, ending an era of four playoff series in five seasons.

This was what I fondly call the "Battle of Ontario" era, when the rivalry was really a rivalry. Sure, the Leafs always came out on the winning end, but let's be honest—unprecedented 2001 sweep aside, there were moments in the series where the Sens had me really scared. They were close games with two teams of equal skill.

The end of this era is surprisingly when the rivalry hit its peak. The 2003-04 season was the beginning of the end for the Toronto Maple Leafs as we knew them, while it also marked a progressive climb to a peak that the Senators would hit over the next two seasons.

Not only was the series a nail-biting seven-game affair, with every game save for a couple being extremely competitive, but who won home ice advantage in the series was actually determined by a game between the two teams in their last game of the regular season (in case you were wondering, the Leafs won that, 6-0).

After the lockout, though, this iconic era was replaced with what I not-so-fondly call the "Public Humiliation of Ontario" era. This era stretched from October 2005 to November 2007. While the Leafs transformed into a team unprepared for the new NHL with too many veterans and slow players, the Sens, having acquired Dany Heatley and finally having Jason Spezza NHL-ready, were among the Eastern Conference elite.

During this stretch, the Sens dominated the series, winning 15 games, while the Leafs won just four. This included lopsided Ottawa victories as brutal as 8-0. It was a dark era for Leafs fans, though it was still an elite Sens team versus an average Leafs team. At this point though, neither team had truly hit its nadir.

November 17, 2007, however, marked a major turning point, when the Leafs skated away with a monumental 3-0 win over an Ottawa team that was, at the time, sporting a 13-2-0 record. After that point, the Sens began a continual downward spiral, while the Leafs went from being a mediocre team to a downright pathetic bunch.

Both trends have carried over to this season, with the Leafs just one point out of last place in the NHL, while the Sens are tied for last. This, folks, is a time I like to call the "Special Olympics" era, because what was once a clash of the titans appears to have all the prestige of a broken bottle fight between two homeless men over dumpster scraps.

Yep, that's how far we've come in four years. Dumpster scraps.

Even worse though is that the raison d'etre for all the hatred has now evaporated. The physically intimidating, hard-hitting Leaf players Sens loved to hate—the Darcy Tuckers, the Tie Domis—are all gone. Kind of hard to hate a team that can't win a fight, let alone get under the opponent's skin.

Who is a Sens fan gonna hate on now, John Mitchell?

Granted, AHL callup Andre Deveaux, a tough guy for the Marlies, is in the lineup tonight, but Tucker and Domi built their legacies of hatred in Ottawa with years of regular-season games and playoff series. Deveaux is never going to be able to live up to that billing in one game.

On the Leaf side of things, one reason for hating Ottawa was they were always a competitive team. When the Leafs were good, the Sens were good; when the Leafs were mediocre to bad, the Sens were still good. For most twentysomething Leaf fans, a skilled, dynamic Sens squad was pretty much a constant—and because they were so good, they were so easy to hate.

While Leaf fans, much like myself, may take great schaudenfraude in watching the Sens crash and burn, it's a lot harder to hate the team when it's a perennial cellar dweller.

Unless they screw us out of a top five draft pick, that is. Then, I will be royally pissed.

So let the Special Olympics continue!

********

So, looks like the Burke deal is all but official. Burke agreed to the terms of the deal today, with the official announcement likely to come Saturday, once Burke finishes Thanksgiving with his family in the US.

The Anaheim Ducks, with a lot of  top prospects in place before Burke's arrival in 2005, cannot really be compared to this Leafs team. The better route of comparison would be the Vancouver Canucks squad that Burke inherited in 1998. While Burke made some really shrewd deals-—or example, getting rid of Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny for younger players such as Brendan Morrison and Ed Jovanovski that would form the core of the franchise for years to come—his drafting record shows mixed results.

Of all the draft selections Burke made between 1999 and 2003, just four of them (Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, and Kevin Bieksa) are currently on the Canucks roster. A look at his drafting records show a lot more foibles (Nathan Smith, anyone?) than successes.

Thankfully, the one thing JFJ did right that stil remains intact to this day was revamp the Leafs scouting department. With Joe Nieuwendyk added into the mix, I have a lot of faith in these people to make the right decisions at the draft table.

I can only hope Burke will rely more on these people rather than import his own advisors—though I'll admit that Dave Nonis, who is certain to be his right-hand man in Toronto, was pretty decent at drafting himself—but only time can answer that question.

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