The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs will square off at the Air Canada Center Saturday evening in an epic battle for the eighth and final playoff spot. Everything has seemingly built up to this very game, a winner take all scenario.
Not too fast, though. Should the Habs fail to win this game, there is a chance that neither team makes the post season thanks to the New York Islanders. There are a number of situations heading into Saturday night’s games that can occur to decide just who sits where at the end of the season.
For one, should the Canadiens beat the Leafs one way or another, they would automatically clinch a playoff spot and thus, eliminate both Toronto and the Islanders.
Montreal would also eliminate Toronto should they pick up a single point in the game. Thus, if the Male Leafs fail to beat Montreal in regulation, their season is over. However, because of the difference in the number of games played, the Islanders could pass both the Habs and Leafs should they win the final two games of their season (versus the Flyers and Devils).
Finally, if Montreal loses to the Leafs in regulation, the Habs would be eliminated and Toronto would have to hope that New York loses one of their final two games in order to clinch.
The Canadiens will need everything they can get from their top players against the Leafs on Saturday. For instance, they’ll need Alex Kovalev to do better than the invisible night he had in New York on Thursday. Montreal will also need their Captain, Saku Koivu, to be the game breaker he’s been over the course of his career.
Montreal’s defensemen will have their hands full with Toronto’s larger forwards. If they can find a way to play smart and contain them, they should be alright. Furthermore, Montreal’s speed game will be key to winning the game. If they sit back and allow Toronto to dictate the play as they let the Rangers do Thursday, the outcome will not be in the Habs’ favor.
The Leafs have problems of their own concerning star players failing to produce. Captain Mats Sundin has only a single goal in the last 19 games, something fans and media alike in Toronto have been concerned about.
Goaltending is another big story going into the game as Cristobal Huet is the likely starter for Saturday’s tilt. Jaroslav Halak had a shaky game Thursday night and allowed two questionable goals, one of which came only 2:53 into the game. Carbonneau had seen enough after Halak let in a third goal very late in the second period and replaced him with Huet to start the third.
Huet, 31, played for the first time after missing 20 games with a torn hamstring. Huet was ready to back up Halak Tuesday, but sat because the paperwork required to bring the French netminder off the injury reserve was not submitted in time to play. Thus, the Habs’ goalie had to wait yet another two days before he could suit up and await his chance to play.
Huet is likely the best choice for goal due to his experience in important games and desire to play. Missing that many games is hard for any player who wishes to play and do his best to help the team win. Huet is that kind of player and if his play during the third period against the Rangers is any indication, he should be fine in goal against the Leafs.
Toronto is having goaltender problems as of late thanks to the inconsistent play of Andrew Raycroft. The 26-year-old goalie has only two wins in his last five games and only one in his last three. Also, in the last three matches Raycroft has an awful 4.16 GAA and a .851 save percentage. The Leafs, who acquired Raycroft during the off-season in a trade with the Boston Bruins for prospect Tuuka Rask, will need a much better game from their starter if they plan on beating the Habs.
Alexander Perezhogin is reportedly ready to make his return to the line up. The Kazakhstan native will play for the first time since he suffered a concussion in practice. Perezhogin, 23, has missed the last 15 games due to the injury. He will likely play with Koivu and Michael Ryder while Mark Streit will probably take Niinimaa’s spot on defense.
One of the downsides for Montreal, who have one of the worst road records of teams that are or could make the playoffs, is that they will be playing the game in Toronto. The home ice advantage is a serious edge for the Maple Leafs as Coach Paul Maurice will be able to keep Mats Sundin away from Montreal’s checking line. Still, expect Guy Carbonneau to match up Radek Bonk and Mike Komisarek with the Leafs’ big center whenever possible.
Montreal holds a slight edge in the season series with four wins to Toronto’s three. However, in the three games played in Leafs’ nation thus far, Montreal only has a 1-2 record.
Of the seven games played, four of them have been decided by a shootout, three of which Montreal won.
Another interesting aspect is that Montreal has won all four of their matches against the Leafs by a single goal. With so much on the line Saturday night, don’t expect anything less than a heart-wrenching close game.
The last time these two teams met, the Canadiens skated away with a 3-2 shootout victory. Andrei Kostitsyn and Koivu scored goals for the Habs while Kyle Wellwood and Pavel Kubina scored for Toronto. Kubina’s goal at 8:41 of the third tied the game at two and forced the game into overtime.
The extra period proved nothing and the two teams exchanged shots in the shootout. Even the shootout needed to be prolonged and Andrei Kostitsyn scored as Montreal’s forth shooter. Darcy Tucker had a chance to tie the game but Halak stoned him on route to the 3-2 win.
That point Toronto picked up by pushing the game into overtime and shootout is a point Montreal will wish they never relinquished considering that the Leafs sit a single point back from the Habs. Had Toronto been two points back at this point in time, they would have already been eliminated.
What’s done is done now, and both teams will need a complete effort from all 20 players in order to come out on top. It is the most important regular season game either side has played in years.
Enjoy the show, for it’s possibly the closest the Habs and fans alike will get to a playoff game until spring 2008.