Playoff hunt, city double fan flames

Updated: March 23, 2006, 5:58 PM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

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 Thursday night as the Canadiens and Leafs meet in the first of two games in three days here with a playoff spot on the line.

There was an interesting development on the Leafs' side at the morning skate at the Bell Centre on Thursday: Veteran Toronto goaltender Ed Belfour was told by doctors to rest his ailing back and not play again this season, according to his agent, Ron Salcer, who was quoted on TSN's Web site. That leaves the Habs' and Leafs' fates in the hands of two goaltenders few would have predicted would be the go-to guys at this point in the season -- Huet for Montreal and Mikael Tellqvist for the Leafs.

The goaltending issue is a significant one in this oldest rivalry in the NHL.

Huet, 30, is tied for second in the NHL with five shutouts in just 27 games. He was an afterthought in the trade that sent goaltender Mathieu Garon to the Los Angeles Kings for center Radek Bonk in summer 2004. Huet had played 54 games in two years as a backup in Los Angeles after leaving Lugano after the 2001-02 season.

Since then, he has flourished in Montreal after being given the chance to relieve struggling Jose Theodore, who was traded to the Colorado Avalanche at the deadline.

"He got a couple of breaks, and things happened," Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray said. "He's taken the team, and we've all followed. He's the reason we have a chance to make the playoffs now."

A couple of wins for either team in these games will go a long way toward making that happen.

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.

Not that the Leafs and Habs need much help.

Even though both clubs have been mediocre at best this season, two games in three days plus the hint of a playoff spot in the crisp early-spring air is enough to get everyone excited. Throw in the big number of Leafs fans who make the trek east along Highway 401 to follow their heroes, and the Bell Centre will be buzzing Thursday night.

Leafs fans are noisier on the road than they are at the staid, corporate Air Canada Centre, which is often as quiet as a Bay Street boardroom, further adding fuel to the fire.

"All the people sitting in the platinum seats [in the lower bowl at the ACC] are corporate people," Leafs defenseman Wade Belak said. "They don't get to their seats until halfway through the period, so the lower bowl is empty.

"The people who see us on the road are the ones who sit in the purple and green seats [at the ACC]. They're the most vocal people. They should switch them [at the ACC]. Everywhere we go, there are lots of Leafs fans, especially here. The building might be evenly divided."

"Look, I know the history of the teams," Huet said. "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 Canadiens enter Thursday's game in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Atlanta Thrashers for the eighth and final playoff spot.

The Habs have been doing a slow fade lately, losing four of their last five (including one to the last-place Pittsburgh Penguins and another to the 12th-place New York Islanders) after Canadiens coach Bob Gainey, in a questionable decision, rested sizzling Huet in favor of newly acquired David Aebischer, who lost back-to-back starts in the second and third games of the losing streak.

The Leafs, three points behind the Habs in 10th place, have won two in a row, including a big win over the Carolina Hurricanes -- second in the Eastern Conference -- Tuesday night.

All six games between the Leafs and Canadiens this season have been decided by one goal, with the Leafs holding a 4-2 edge.

"If I look back on the season, it looked like we were gone and Toronto was in [the playoffs], and four weeks later Toronto was gone and we were in," Gainey said. "Now ,we're both paddling in the same boat."

There was a time when the Leafs-Habs rivalry would have been like the America's Cup with state-of-the-art vessels.

Now, it's more like a couple of rust-bucket tugboats coughing up smoke, trying to make it to the finish line.

"It'll still be crazy," Habs center Mike Ribeiro said.

Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun.