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Does it get better than this? Habs, Leafs, Saturday night and a playoff spot

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

"It's Saturday night, it's the last game of the season and both teams need to get the win," Leafs winger Darcy Tucker said Friday. "It's going to be a lot of fun to play in."

For the Habs, one point ahead of the Leafs for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the script is simple. Win and they're in.

The Leafs? Not so simple.

Should the Islanders win both their weekend games at Philadelphia and at New Jersey, Toronto is knocked out even with a win over the Canadiens because New York would have 92 points, one more than the Leafs.

"We can't control what they're going to do," said Tucker. "We just have to control what we can now. Our job is to put ourselves in the eighth position after tomorrow night's game and then ... who knows."

A win for the Habs would give them 92 points and the tiebreaker over the Isles - more victories. But that means the Canadiens must beat a Leafs team that has won eight straight at the Air Canada Centre while Montreal has dropped seven of their last nine road games.

"We have to be aggressive right at the start, we need to come out strong, it's very important," Montreal forward Steve Begin said Friday in New York where the team practised before flying to Toronto.

"We know it's going to be a very intense game, it's going to be a war."

Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau would not confirm that Cristobal Huet would make his first start since Feb. 14, but all indications are that Huet will indeed be in goal instead of rookie Jaroslav Halak, who gave up three goals in Thursday's 3-1 loss against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Huet, recovering from hamstring surgery, played the third period Thursday night, a clear sign that Carbonneau was getting his No. 1 goalie ready for Saturday.

While Huet will try to find his timing, Leafs captain Mats Sundin will try to score a goal. The star centre has gone 11 games without one.

Sundin appeared somewhat worn down Friday when speaking to a large throng of reporters, as if both the playoff chase and his scoring slump were taxing him.

"I feel good," he insisted. When a reporter pressed and asked how he felt mentally, his short response was: "Good."

Sundin said Saturday presented a nice opportunity.

"I think if you look at the position we were in at the all-star break (tied for eighth), we would have taken this position we're in right now: to have one game and have a good chance to make the playoffs if we can win tomorrow night at home - knowing that we'll still need some help," said Sundin.

What kind of help will Philadelphia offer Saturday or New Jersey provide Sunday against the Islanders?

Should the Isles beat the Flyers, what reason would the Devils have to start star goalie Martin Brodeur in what is a meaningless game for them?

That's intrigue for Sunday. First the Leafs have to take care of business.

"There's a lot of excitement in this game and we're excited about having the chance to play for a chance to go in the playoffs," said Leafs coach Paul Maurice. "But there's a sliver there that makes it a little more intense and that's the fact that the team who loses this game won't be able to play another one this year."

Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft grew up in Belleville, Ont., and played his last junior season in Kingston, Ont., where fans of both the Canadiens and Leafs are in the multitude.

No need to tell the 26-year-old Raycroft how special Saturday's card is.

"It's pretty cool," said Raycroft. "Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday night. It's basically a Game 7. I'm sure everyone woke up in Ontario today and was pretty excited. I've already had 10 phone calls from friends."

Despite the pressure, Maurice, from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., also appreciates being involved in a game of this magnitude between Canada's two Original Six franchises.

"Absolutely," he said. "You got to take it all in. That's part of the payoff of doing this job is to get to go through some of the good things, too. It's not all grind your teeth, swear and drink coffee. There's more to coaching. You got to enjoy it. ...

"Both teams have so many fans, and they're not just in our cities, they're spread across the country," added Maurice. "I would think it would be good time to have a commercial spot during this one."

Notes: Thanks to the three-point system, each team has a winning record against each other this season, the Canadiens 4-2-1 versus the Leafs and Toronto 3-1-3 against Montreal - each collecting nine points ... An overtime loss by Montreal on Saturday would leave both teams at 91 points but the Canadiens have the tiebreaker with more victories ... Montreal's last two games at the Air Canada Centre was a 4-1 loss Jan. 27 and a 5-1 loss Nov. 11.


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