Habs vs. Leafs Gameday: Last Chance

For this entire, final week of the regular season, the Montreal Canadiens have been sitting but two points or less away from a clinched playoff spot. Through the luck of the draw, if you want to call it lucky, they were handed the 11th, 12th and 15th place teams in the Eastern Conference to close out their season. Moreover, the teams currently behind them in 8th and 9th place, play each other in their respective final two games of the season.

Someone who may have been stuck under a rock these past six days might say "no problem". Only a single win out of three, against three teams already eliminated from playoff contention? Piece of cake.

Well, guess again. Tuesday night, the Habs blow a 2-1 lead gained in the first only to lose in 4-3 in a shootout against a team that, while it has nothing to lose, has no business beating the Canadiens in such an important game for "Les Glorieux". Jaroslav Halak, coming off back-to-back SHUTOUTS against, of all teams, the Flyers and Sabres, looked weak in goal against a young Islanders team with limited offensive weaponry, and should have had at least one of the three regulation goals, not to mention the shootout goals by Moulson and Nielsen. Obviously, Halak wasn't the only one to blame, as Mike Cammalleri and Benoit Pouliot continued to struggle (Cammalleri just barely missing his shootout attempt), but there was no excuse for this one, as the offense did contribute 3 goals.

Flash forward to Thursday night in Carolina, as the Canes are getting ready to play the final home game of the regular season. The game marks the end of a rollercoaster season for Carolina, who went into the Christmas roster freeze as by far the worst team in the entire league. Today, the Canes are the second best team in the league since the New Year, having accumulated more points in that span than every team, other than the Washington Capitals, a team which they ironically took the season series against (thanks to my friend Scott Lowe for that tidbit).

Add to this the fact that the Hurricanes have dominated the Canadiens for as long as most of us can remember, and you start thinking that Habs fans watching this game should be feeling a little worried. The game starts off really bad, with an obscene amount of odd-man rushes in the favor of the Canes to start off the first period. That's really all I needed to see, opting to turn the channel to less depression programs instead of sitting through what I knew would be another loss. Well, I was right, as the Canadiens were a-Ward-ed another loss and had their playoff hopes Staal-ed.

Add in a couple of Rangers victories, as well as the Bruins still hanging in there, and you have your excruciating set up for tonight's marquee game in the league.

Montreal vs. Toronto. One of the league's oldest and most storied rivalries. Two teams that haven't played each other in the playoffs in years, yet still manage to put on playoff-quality atmospheres in the games between them in every game they meet. And tonight may very well be the closest thing to a playoff game either team sees.

For the Montreal Canadiens, it's game 7. It's the Stanley Cup finals. If they lose, it's over. If they win, they reap the benefits of a playoff berth. Although, as most Habs fans will certainly agree to, making the playoffs may simply be prolonging the inevitable. Nevertheless, to say that tonight's game at the Bell Centre is a must win for the Habs is an understatement. On the line tonight, on top of that playoff spot, is dignity, pride, and the justification of the contracts that then-GM Bob Gainey gave out to half the players currently on the roster.

For the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's once again the role of the Spoiler. Although few current Leafs players have been with the team for very long, and many might not be there for much longer, the Leafs have been here before, and with this very team. In what's become somewhat of a tradition, the Canadiens and Leafs battle it out in the last game of the season. Usually, the Leafs are the ones on the outside looking in, and usually, they have a chance to ruin it for the Canadiens. They did so two years ago, and they will certainly want to do it again. To make matters worse for the Habs, Montreal native Jean-Sebastien will be getting the start for the Leafs, and just like all the Quebec-born goaltenders before him, he will be looking to win in front of friends, family, and countrymen, and Quebecois goaltenders playing in the Bell Centre is always a dangerous topic.

What's sad about this whole thing is that the Canadiens don't even need to win to make the playoffs. If they lose in overtime (which is likely), they're in. Even if they lose in regulation, if the Flyers beat the Rangers tomorrow, they're in. Odds are, if the Montreal Canadiens are going to clinch a playoff spot before the end of the weekend, it's going to be through the back door.

Can they ensure that they will choose their own destiny? Will we all be watching the Rangers/Flyers on the edge of our seats tomorrow? Do we even want them to make the playoffs, and will they do anything when they get there? Will Jaroslav Halak, who's starting tonight, look like the goaltender he needs to be for this team, or will he once again make Jacques Martin question his goaltending decisions?

There are many questions to be answered, and lucky for us, we won't be left wondering for much longer. By early evening tomorrow, all our prayers, or nightmares, will have been answered.

Enjoy the game, if you can,