“I got to go to church Sunday,” Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe said Saturday night after a huge 6-5 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
“The biggest church day of the year is Easter Sunday. I know I’ll be there with my wife and kid and I’ll be praying.”
The New York Islanders can ruin what was otherwise a memorable regular-season finale for the Leafs with a win Sunday afternoon over the New Jersey Devils.
“We’ll be rooting for Jersey,” said Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle, who wasn’t exactly a big fan of the Devils on March 2 when Cam Janssen knocked him out with a late hit.
The great intrigue coming out of New Jersey was whether superstar goalie Martin Brodeur would be given a rest Sunday in what is otherwise a meaningless game for the Devils, who have already clinched the Atlantic Division and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“I’d be very disappointed if Brodeur wasn’t in net,” said Leafs captain Mats Sundin. “We’ll be praying that he is.”
A two-goal comeback kept the Leafs’ playoff chances alive. Carlo Colaiacovo scored late in the second period, McCabe tied it 5-5 early in the third period before Kyle Wellwood scored the winner and the Leafs rallied to beat the Habs, knocking their Original Six rivals out of the playoff picture.
“We gave everything we had as a team, I think,” said Montreal goalie Cristobal Huet, making his first start since Feb. 14. “They scored some ugly goals … it’s tough to finish a season like that.”
It was a game that won’t be soon forgotten even if the Leafs don’t make the playoffs, a riveting affair featuring 11 goals scored, both teams blowing two-goals leads and a crowd of 19,723 at Air Canada Centre on their feet nearly throughout.
“It was all that was good about our game in Canada,” said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice.
The Leafs moved into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 91 points, one ahead of the Islanders. The first-place Buffalo Sabres await either the Leafs or the Islanders in the first round.
Alex Steen, Nik Antropov and Bates Battaglia also scored for the Leafs, who coughed up a 3-1 lead in the second period only to rally back from a 5-3 deficit with J.S. Aubin replacing Andrew Raycroft in goal.
“The guys played so well when I got in there, I only faced a few shots (six),” said Aubin. “We pretty much played in their own zone.”
Michael Ryder had a natural hat trick while Chris Higgins had a pair for the Habs, who lost their final two games on the season to slip out of the playoffs.
“It’s hard to conceive that we lost and hockey’s over,” said Higgins.
Captain Saku Koivu had three assists while Sheldon Souray had one assist in what was likely the final game in a Canadiens uniform for the star defenceman, an unrestricted free agent July 1.
The Habs will spend all summer wondering how they let this one slip away. Ryder’s three goals in just under six minutes in the second period made it 5-3 and should have been enough on any normal night.
But Sundin says his team still believed down two goals.
“We just gave it everything we got at that point,” he said. “I thought we played really well in the first period and had all the chances. So there was no reason to panic down two goals.”
The Leafs got back in the game with 2:14 to go in the period, Colaiacovo’s seeing eye point shot eluding a screened Huet, bringing a buzz back in the building.
“I thought the turning point in the game is Colaiacovo’s goal,” said Maurice. “The crowd came out for us in the third period. They were wired when we came out for the third period.”
The Leafs got a pair of 5-on-3 power plays early in the third period and actually didn’t score on either one but they did with the one-man advantage, McCabe rifling a wrist shot that beat Huet top corner on the glove side 58 seconds into the third.
Wellwood then tipped Kaberle’s wrist shot from the point to give the Leafs a 6-5 lead at 3:43 just before the 5-on-4 power play expired, a goal that shook the roof at the ACC.
“The last two minutes of the second period and the first two minutes of the third – that’s when the whole game changed,” said Koivu.
Sundin, meanwhile, was clutch yet again for his team even his goal drought reached 12 games, recording three assists and leading the way with eight shots on goal.
The Leafs came charging out of the gate and outshot Montreal 12-1 in the opening five minutes. They kept coming in waves and Yanic Perreault set up a streaking Battaglia in the slot, his wrist shot beating Huet glove side to open the scoring at 7:53.
Higgins tied the game on a beauty, skating around Kaberle inside the blue-line and beating Raycroft stick side, getting hundreds of Montreal fans on their feet.
But Antropov tipped a Sundin pass between Huet’s legs with 3:51 to go in the opening period, a squeaker that the Habs netminder should have had.
Steen made it 3-1 with fans still finding their seats 1:12 into the middle period, flipping a rebound over a sprawled Huet.
Then it was the Ryder show. He cut the lead to one goal just 36 seconds after the Steen goal, his wrist shot from the side boards going in off Raycroft’s glove, a horrible goal that put Montreal right back into the game.
Montreal had a 5-on-3 moments later and Ryder slipped in his own rebound to tie 3-3 at 4:32. A few shifts later, Ryder scored goal No. 3 to give Montreal its first lead of the game, stuffing a wrap-around effort under Raycroft, his 30th of the year which chased the Leafs goalie form the net.
Montreal’s vaunted power play connected again when Higgins slid in a rebound at 14:31, giving Montreal a 5-3 lead.
Notes: Defencemen Josh Gorges and Janne Niinimaa and forwards Sergei Samsonov and Garth Murray were healthy scratches for Montreal. Forward Alexander Perezhogin was back in the lineup for the first time since Feb. 27, recovering from a concussion … Forwards Jeff O’Neill, Kris Newbury and Travis Green and defencemen Wade Belak and Andrew Wozniewski were left behind by the Leafs.