"Yeah, he wears 34,” laughed Chris Wideman after practice on Friday afternoon. “That’s right, yeah, he’s No. 34. He got named to the All-Star Game and he's having a good year, so we're aware of who he is, but that's not our focus. Our focus is on the guys in this room and if we play well, we should be able to get the result."
“He” is Auston Matthews. You may have heard of him.
Last time Matthews and his crew were in town, he - and really, only he - somewhat embarrassed the Senators in their home opener.
Ottawa won that game 5-4 thanks to a Kyle Turris snipe job in overtime, but really, it didn’t fully feel like a win.
Plastered all across social media and every TV screen in Canada was Matthews’ first career goal. His second career goal. His third career goal. Oh yes, and his fourth career goal.
Over and over and over and over again.
For days. Weeks. Heck, we still see it from time to time.
“We won’t be surprised by how good Matthews is like we were the first game,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher. “Although, if there should’ve been people not surprised, it should’ve been me that coached against him last year and (Marc) Crawford and (Rob) Cookson who coached him.
“He was already very good last year (playing) with men. The Swiss League is a lot better than people think. The players that come over come from the NHL think they’re getting in there, going to be the guy, and quickly realize it’s a much faster league than the American League, for instance.”
If there ever was a preferable time for the Senators to take on the star power the Leafs possess, it would be now. In each of their last four games, Ottawa has dealt with a top ten player in the league.
“Those high-end players, whether it’s Crosby last game, Ovechkin or Connor McDavid, they’re going to get a look no matter what,” Boucher explained. “No matter how good you play defensively. But I think the last games we’ve done a really good job of having a team defense against the other team’s best players and we don’t want to make it any different here.”
Tonight’s game is arguably the most important of the season for both squads. Currently, the Senators sit two points ahead of the Leafs, both having played the same amount of games.
And isn’t that something we’ve all missed?
The Battle of Ontario hasn’t been truly meaningful in a handful of years. In fact, it seems the most passionate affairs between the two have been simply for bragging rights or to ruin the other’s postseason hopes.
Now, with both teams in the thick of a tight playoff race in the Atlantic Division, the rivalry that has felt largely deflated over the past several years is now completely renewed.
Oddly enough, the Leafs and Senators’ first matchup marked the beginning of the season, and their second will mark the halfway point.
And while they both began the year playing a run-and-gun style, scoring goals by the dozen and letting them in at the same rate, the Leafs and Senators are far more well-rounded now, playing a rather responsible defensive game and finding chemistry with consistent lines and pairings.
Toronto’s youngsters have matured quickly and Frederik Andersen has shaken off some early poor performances, and Ottawa’s coaching staff has finally settled in with their surroundings and is figuring out where all the pieces fit into the puzzle.
“We’re definitely better armed to face top players now as a group because our players have really evolved individually defensively,” said Boucher. “But also structurally, and collectively we’re in sync now.”
Puck drop is 7:00 p.m. ET in the suburbs of Kanata. In their last 10 games, the Senators are 6-3-1 and the Leafs are 7-2-1. While Mike Condon will get the start for Ottawa, it’s still unknown who will be in the opposite crease. Curtis McElhinney was supposed to get the nod, but he has since gone down with a minor injury. Toronto re-called goaltender Garret Sparks, but head coach Mike Babcock has yet to make a decision on his starter.