Hit-Happy Leafs and Senators Set for Battle of Ontario

(John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
The Toronto Maple Leafs will be hoping for more of this tonight at the Battle of Ontario. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

As the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to give up shots like it’s a part of their gameplan, they do lead the league in a different statistic.

Heading into what should be a physical Battle of Ontario Saturday night in Toronto, the Leafs sit atop the NHL with no fewer than 1,859 hits, a whole 71 ahead of the second placed Los Angeles Kings. In third? The Ottawa Senators, with 1,640.

It’s a surprising statistic for the Maple Leafs in particular, whose 3rd and 4th line lack the kind of speedy, aggressive checker you might expect to top the list. As it is, you might also be surprised to learn who leads the Leafs in hitting – Cody Franson, game by game, doesn’t seem to be the most physical of defencemen but tops the list with 200 hits on the season – just over 10 per game.

Cody Franson
Cody Franson lies 2nd in the NHL with 200 hits. No, really. (Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE)

For the Senators, the hit champion is a little more predictable. Chris Neil leads the Senators in body-crunching with 165, but then he’s been doing it for years, a constant, toothless menace forever in the face of all and sundry.

It makes for a mouth-watering contest which also features the resurgent Clarke MacArthur, who along with Mikael Grabovski was cast out of the Leafs by Randy Carlyle and who, like Grabovski, had plenty to say about his former head coach as he left. With 18 goals and 42 points, MacArthur is on pace for his best season since his first year with the Leafs in 2010-11.

Both teams have won their past two games and for the Senators, it’s a surge that has brought them within a point of the struggling Detroit Red Wings in their bid to move into the second wildcard spot. The Senators will also be looking for a measure of revenge, as they’ve fallen victim to the Leafs’ sudden expertise in the shootout, with Toronto taking leading the season series 2-0.

With an 8-1-1 record in their last 10 games, the Leafs are sitting pretty tied with Montreal on 64 points and can move back into the automatic playoff spot with a single point. Such was the (eventual) confidence of the performance in the 6-3 one would expect the Leafs to start hard, but you can never quite work out what you’re going to get from the Leafs game to game.

Nazem Kadri, a player who seems to reserve his best performances for rival games, will be looking continue in the rich vein of form which saw him score twice against the Panthers. Though Kadri is the epitomy of the Leafs tendency to switch off during some games, the Battle of Ontario seems the perfect stage for him to continue the work which has seen Randy Carlyle reward him with more and more ice time.

For the Senators, their strength has come from the back. Defenceman Erik Karlsson leads the team in points with 51, nine ahead of second-placed Bobby Ryan who has flourished along with MacArthur and Kyle Turris.

The stage is set for this one – expect some fireworks at the Air Canada Centre.