Leafs live another day with sloppy win over Canadiens
TORONTO -- In a game that called out for heroes, this one will be remembered more for goats and gaffes.
A classic? The game of the year?
The Toronto Maples Leafs' improbable 6-5 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, the final night of the regular season for both teams, was hardly that.
But memorable? You bet.
The game featured horrific turnovers, shoddy goaltending, ill-advised penalties, a blown 3-1 lead and other assorted missteps and mayhem. But when the dust cleared, it was the Leafs who will live on for at least one more day while the Canadiens' second-half collapse bled into an unexpectedly early end to the season and questions about the team's make-up and character.
The Leafs will spend Sunday afternoon biting their collective nails while watching the New York Islanders and the New Jersey Devils play their final games of the regular season. If the Islanders win, they will join the Eastern Conference playoff bracket as the No. 8 and face Buffalo. If the Islanders lose, the Leafs are in.
Regardless of the outcome of that game, nothing will detract from the Leafs' high-stakes victory over their ancient rivals from Quebec, head coach Paul Maurice said.
"The best part of this is you get to keep this game," Maurice said. "Yeah, we get to enjoy it."
The largest-ever crowd to watch a game at the Air Canada Centre saw the Leafs fairly erupt out of the gate.
They dominated puck possession and sustained offensive zone pressure that saw them outshoot the Habs 12-1 in the first five minutes of the game.
The initial barrage led to the first goal, by Bates Battaglia. It came on the Leafs' 16th shot.
Even after the Canadiens tied it 1-1, the Leafs kept storming the Habs in a dramatic turnaround from their tentative play against the New York Islanders on Thursday night in a game won 5-2 by the Islanders.
Less than two minutes into the second period, Alexander Steen's goal had given the Leafs a 3-1 lead and it looked like the Leafs would cruise to victory. Maurice said he thought the team's play to that point was the finest the Leafs had put together all season.
And then the bubble burst.
In what could have been a career-defining stretch of play, netminder Andrew Raycroft whiffed on a long-range wrist shot by Michael Ryder from the left side that make it 3-2 just 36 seconds after Steen's goal.
Less than three minutes later, Ryder scored his second of three second-period goals to tie the game. Then it was Raycroft over-committing on a Montreal rush and failing to get back into the net quickly enough to prevent Ryder from converting a wrap-around that gave the Canadiens a 4-3 lead.
That was it for the Toronto starter.
Maurice said the decision to go to backup J.S. Aubin was more about trying to reverse the flow of the game than Raycroft's play specifically, although the coach admitted he started thinking about yanking Raycroft after the second goal.
If the Islanders lose Sunday, Maurice will face an interesting dilemma regarding his starting goalie in the playoffs. Although Leafs players rallied around Raycroft -- indeed, seeming to make a special show of hugging him in the postgame celebration on the ice -- his performance down the stretch raises serious questions about his ability to handle the pressure.
In three of his last four starts, against the New York Rangers, the Islanders and Saturday's contest against the Habs, Raycroft has been pulled twice while giving up 12 goals on 62 shots. That kind of goaltending against the high-octane Sabres is a recipe for disaster.
The problem is that Aubin, who allowed one goal on six shots in relief Saturday, isn't particularly well-regarded by the Leafs organization.
"We're going to get to that when we get to that," Maurice said of any potential goaltending controversy.
Certainly, controversy has never been far away from the Canadiens during the latter stages of this season, and it isn't likely to change with their collapse Saturday night.
After looking like a sure-fire playoff team halfway through the season, the Canadiens stumbled through the second half, struggling on the road. Saturday was a microcosm of their woes.
Leading 5-3 late in the second, a bad turnover by Alexei Kovalev led to a fluky goal by Leafs defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, whose shot from the blue line tipped off a Montreal stick, went high into the air and over the shoulder of netminder Cristobal Huet.
Then, as the whistle blew to end the second period, Montreal forward Steve Begin tried to whack the puck out of the air and instead ended up jabbing Leafs forward Kyle Wellwood in the face. Wellwood was cut and Begin was given a double-minor for high sticking.
Toronto tied the game 58 seconds into the third and then, shortly after Montreal captain Saku Koivu gave the Leafs a two-man advantage for 57 seconds by hauling down Wellwood, it was Wellwood who scored what turned out to be the winning goal when Tomas Kaberle's shot bounced off him and past Huet.
"What do you want me to say?" a shaken Koivu said when asked about his penalty. "It was penalty, they scored."
"That was the turning point."
Although there's been much discussion of the goal-scoring woes of Leafs captain Mats Sundin, who has just one goal in his last 20 games (he did get three assists Saturday), there will be continued discussion about the value and role of talented Kovalev in Montreal.
Kovalev played just 13:14 on Saturday, including less than four minutes in the third period when the Canadiens were desperate to score the tying goal. He finished the season with just 18 goals. Comments attributed to him in the Russian press complaining about cliques in the dressing room will make it hard for him to assume any kind of leadership role in the future.
Both GM Bob Gainey, who was home in Montreal sick and did not join the team on its last road trip of the season, and rookie head coach Guy Carbonneau will come in for some criticism from the competitive Montreal media.
Carbonneau hasn't hesitated to bench top players such as Kovalev and Koivu. He also warred with high-priced free agent Sergei Samsonov, who hasn't played since March 8.
He gambled Saturday by starting Huet, who was just returning from a hamstring injury that saw him miss 21 games. He allowed six goals on 35 shots Saturday and has not won since Jan. 20.
Carbonneau said he didn't think about pulling Huet and thought there were many positives to come from the season.
"I'm proud of the team," Carbonneau said. "We made a lot of strides. We found out that we had some depth and we found out that we have some really good kids, and they're going to be here for a long time. So, the future looks good."
Koivu didn't share Carbonneau's glass-is-half-full view of the moment.
"You can say that a lot of young guys stepped up, played well for us, but for me the bottom line is that we're not in the playoffs and our vacation started a couple of minutes ago," the captain said.
There will be much speculation about whether record-setting netminder Martin Brodeur will start Sunday's game for New Jersey or if it will be rarely used backup Scott Clemmensen. The betting money says Brodeur will start for a couple of reasons.
First, Brodeur is a workhorse and he's going to get at least two or three days off, depending on when the Devils open the playoffs. Playing Sunday would help keep any rust from developing. Second, Brodeur can add to his NHL-record win total, and 49 wins will be harder to equal or break than 48. Plus, it would put him two ahead of Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, who earned his 47th win Saturday.
Aubin got the call to replace Raycroft with 12:23 left in the second period. The theory is that backups work hard every day and watch the game intently, so they can stay fresh and ready when the call does come.
"But we don't," Aubin said, grinning. "We just get here and we fool around and we wait."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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