Playoff hunt, city double fan flames

MONTREAL -- It might not match Lugano vs. Ambri Piotta, but the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs rivalry is up there.

"That rivalry between Lugano and Ambri Piotta in the Swiss League was huge. There'd be fights before and after. Those people were always crazy," said Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet, who has come out of St. Martin D'Heres, France -- which, if it isn't nowhere in hockey terms, surely is within a croissant's toss of it -- to become a star with the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge this season.

Huet will be a central figure again Saturday night as the Canadiens and Leafs close out their two games in three days here. And now, it looks like the greatest rivals the Leafs face in their battle for a playoff spot are not the Canadiens or Atlanta Thrashers, but themselves.

The Leafs were simply awful in Thursday night's 5-1 loss to the Habs at the Bell Centre, and now face all but mathematical elimination from the playoff race Saturday night.

If the Leafs are to drag this on, they must find a way to play like the team that beat the vastly superior Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

Which Leafs team will show up Saturday night?

It was worst-case scenario for the Leafs Thursday: an embarrassingly ill-prepared start to their most crucial game to date, followed by all their rivals for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference earning points.

The Leafs, down quickly 2-0 against the Habs and 4-0 after the first period, held a meeting after the game.

"We've had enough closed-door meetings this year," said Toronto forward Darcy Tucker. "We don't need another one -- the score said it all."

After the latest chapter of Leafs-Habs rivalry, the NHL's oldest, the Leafs found themselves five points behind the ninth-place Canadiens and six out of the eighth and final spot, held by the Thrashers.

It left them wondering how they could look so poorly prepared for such an important game, an issue that has to be addressed for Saturday.

"I don't think emotion was the problem. Execution was the problem," said Leafs coach Pat Quinn. "Maybe it was the tightness. I'm not sure what it was. If you don't execute, whether it's from a lack of trying, maybe a lack of talent, I don't know."

On the night the Leafs found out veteran goaltender Ed Belfour's career with Toronto is likely over because of back trouble, they did little to help young goaltender Mikael Tellqvist. He was left to fend for himself on the Habs' first two goals, which came 12 seconds apart before the game was five minutes old.

"I'm disappointed and I'm not really happy with my performance, especially in the first period," Tellqvist said. "It doesn't matter what the other teams do. We have to play better than this and I have to play better than this if we want to make the playoffs."

After Thursday night's rather passionless outcome, Lugano-Ambri-Piotta is sounding like the better rivalry right now.

The goaltending issue is a significant one. Huet, who made 33 stops Thursday and was saluted with the French national anthem in the Bell Centre in the waning seconds of the game, is tied for second in the NHL with five shutouts (in just 28 games). He was an afterthought in the trade that sent goaltender Mathieu Garon from Montreal to the Los Angeles Kings for centre Radek Bonk in the summer of 2004.

Huet had played just 54 games over two years as a backup in Los Angeles after leaving Lugano after the 2001-2 season.

He's flourished in Montreal when given the chance to relieve the struggling Theodore.
"He got a couple of breaks and things happened," said Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray. "He's taken the team and we've all followed.

He's the reason we have a chance to make the playoffs now."

The Habs can take another step towards that with a win Saturday night to sweep the Leafs. The back-to-back games in one city are a new twist in the NHL schedule this season, another facet of the unbalanced schedule to build divisional rivalries.

Even though both clubs have been mediocre at best this season, two games in a row here in three days, with the hint of a playoff spot in the crisp late-winter air, is enough to get everyone here as excited as if there was a 2-for-1 special on table dances at this city's legendary gentleman's entertainment establishments.

Throw in the big number of Leafs' fans who make the trek up Hwy. 401 to follow their heroes on the road and the Bell Centre will be buzzing again Saturday night.

"Look, I know the history of the teams," said Huet, whose career has been resurrected here and has taken over the number one job when the struggling and then injured Jose Theodore was traded to Colorado at the trade deadline.

"But what happened in the past is in the past. Right now, history is what happened in the last 65 games. The fact is both teams are in a tough situation."

The Leafs are certainly in the tougher spot now.

"Right now, Tampa, New Jersey, us, Atlanta -- a lot of teams can make it," said Montreal captain Saku Koivu, who has gone 20 games without a goal but had a beautiful assist on Christopher Higgins' opening goal Thursday night.

"One weekend can change everything."

The Leafs need changes.

"We all know what has to be done," said Leafs captain Mats Sundin. "The big thing is to remember this feeling and make sure it's not there again on Saturday."

Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun.