Isles, Rangers, Leafs, Habs prepare for Thursday's rush

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Paul Maurice stopped coaching a few days ago. Now, he just watches his players' faces as though he might glean from them some emotional signal to their collective psyches with the Toronto Maple Leafs' season hanging in the balance.

"It won't matter," what he sees, he admitted. "Everybody's wired."

Down the dingy hallway at venerable Nassau Coliseum, Maurice's counterpart Ted Nolan said he thought about showing his players examples of teams that were in similarly desperate straights and emerged victorious. He then said he trashed the idea, figuring if his New York Islanders couldn't summon up enough motivation for Thursday's win-or-go-home matchup with the Leafs, no amount of coaching trickery would do the trick.

"I don't know if it's coaching or making people believe things can happen," he said in describing his role these days.

A few miles away, a similar drama will be played out Thursday evening as the New York Rangers play host to the Montreal Canadiens.

Four teams, two games, so very much at stake, their futures so intricately intertwined like a spider web. It is a playoff web that will ultimately only support the weight of two of these four teams.

"There is still an out, but it hasn't felt like that for quite some time," Maurice said prior to Thursday's game.

It's true. In theory, the Leafs, who trail Montreal by one point for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, could take a loss Thursday evening as long as the Canadiens do not take a point from the Rangers. That dual outcome, or a Leafs win of any kind, would set up what schedule-makers only dream of -- a winner-take-all proposition in the final game of the regular season for the storied Canadian rivals.

But those are the conflicting desires and dreams at play on this day.

"We have to be prepared and focused and play like there is no tomorrow. Because there might not be a tomorrow," Islanders forward Jason Blake said.

A few years ago, Blake and the Islanders played a seventh game in an opening-round playoff series against these same Maple Leafs.

"Tonight's going to be something like that," Blake said. Although he'd prefer the outcome, a Maple Leafs victory, not repeat itself.

One might have expected something different Thursday morning, something that denoted the stakes. Instead, players seemed to take solace in the humdrum routine of the morning skate and interviews from reporters.

The Islanders filed in and out of a kitchen/office down the hall from their dressing room to grab juice and bagels slathered with cream cheese and jam.

As he headed to his office after a pre-practice workout, Nolan beamed broadly at visitors. "It's snowing back home, so I'm happy today," he said.

Asked later how much snow Nolan's hometown in Northern Ontario was getting, he grinned again. "I think about 20 centimeters. I'm going to call after this to find out," he said.

A few days ago, Nolan verbally chided his team for their attitude as they'd watched what once appeared to be a comfortable place in the postseason bracket slip away to where the Islanders must win their last three games and hope the Canadiens don't gain more than a point in their final two games.

"We were feeling sorry for ourselves," Nolan said. "We got what we've got and we have to work with what we've got."

What the Islanders don't have is netminder Rick DiPietro, on the shelf with a concussion (or something approaching a concussion, depending on reports). With backup Mike Dunham's implosion last week, the fate of the Islanders rests in the hands of 28-year-old journeyman Wade Dubielewicz.

A surprisingly jolly Dubielewicz paused on his way to the ice to talk to fans dressed in Islanders gear who had driven overnight from Ottawa to see the game. "Cool," he said before disappearing onto the ice.

Later, Dub said he wants the same result Thursday as he wants from every game, so he's doing his best to prepare the same way. He was hoping to have lunch with teammate Jeff Tambellini, take a nap if he was tired, and then back to the rink where he would "mess around" until game time.

He understands this is one of those rare storybook stages where his play may make the difference in a team's entire season -- and his own career. He was up to the task Tuesday, when he turned aside 36 of 38 Rangers shots and then blanked the Blueshirts in the shootout to help the Isles secure two points and keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

Although he has scenes of past Islanders glory depicted on his mask, Dubielewicz's protective gear also features Yoda of "Star Wars" fame. Simple, he said. Yoda doesn't look like a Jedi Knight; Dubie he doesn't look like a goalie, at least not a prototypical goalie.

Nolan just smiles at the mention of his new backstopper. "He's interesting to watch and he's fun to be around," said the coach.

When Dubielewicz was given the task of guiding the Isles, Nolan asked Dubielewicz, what's the worst thing that can happen? The Islanders lose and he goes back to Bridgeport of the AHL.

Maurice was asked if he thought it was bad luck to draw an unheralded goalie that seemed to be on a bit of a rainbow, albeit a short one.

"You can face Martin Brodeur or a guy whose name you can't spell and they can throw a wall at you," Maurice said.

The hours between now and then will pass slowly for players and coaches alike. Too slowly for some.

"You kind of try and stay with the routine. But at the back of the mind, there's this excitement," said Toronto forward Boyd Devereaux. "I can't wait for the game to start. You want the day to be accelerated."

Like Dubielewicz, Devereaux is one of the players in this protracted, multi-city ice drama that gives the proceedings texture. At the start of the season, the journeyman forward from Seaforth, Ontario, appeared buried on the Leafs' AHL affiliate. But a slew of injuries opened the door to Devereaux, former Carolina Hurricane Bates Battaglia and John Pohl, among others. They have provided timely goals and helped keep the Leafs in a playoff race they had no business staying in.

For the moment, at least, the Leafs can chart their own course -- keep winning and they're playoff bound. Maurice admits he may be proven wrong in the next 24 hours, especially if there's a Saturday night tilt against Montreal with a postseason berth on the line. Still, Maurice figures the tension wire is pulled as taut as it can get.

"I can't imagine it getting any more intense than it is right now," he said.

We'll know if that's true in just a few hours.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.