SUN Hockey Pool

Habs hitting stride

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

With 22 games remaining in the regular season the Maple Leafs may think they still have a shot at making the playoffs, but there is a small problem.

The club that has the eighth and final playoff spot, the Montreal Canadiens, is riding a wave and as a group are the Leafs' polar opposite when it comes to confidence.

The Habs, who have won three in a row and have just two regulation losses in their past 10 games, are in Philadelphia to face the Flyers tonight before arriving at the Air Canada Centre tomorrow night for a tilt with the Leafs.

"Every game is pivotal, but we are at the point (where) we are getting better and gaining the kind of momentum you need at this point in the season," forward Michael Ryder said. "This (a drubbing of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday)is the kind of test that you need, especially when you end strong."

Of course, the Canadiens represent one worry for the Leafs. If they want to to overtake Montreal, first the Leafs will have to pass the Boston Bruins and Atlanta Thrashers. And breathing down the Leafs' necks are the New York Islanders.

There will be one bonus if the Leafs continue to fall in the standings: A high first-round draft pick, which they have not had since 1998, when they took Nik Antropov 10th.

Speaking of the Thrashers, general manager Don Waddell now says he was just messing with the public's minds when he guaranteed a month ago his club would make the playoffs.

"With all the other distractions with the team at the time and, certainly when I said it, I knew I was going to take the distraction away from them and put it on myself," Waddell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Whether it worked or not, I know we won three out of four games going into the (Olympic) break.

"There was no doubt in my mind. I knew exactly what I was saying at the time. (But) if we don't make the playoffs, it's going to be a very disappointing season for all of us."

Does anyone other than Thrashers players and employees think they will be the club that gets the final playoff spot?

KINGS WANT LUONGO

It has been thought the biggest decision facing Florida Panthers general manager Mike Keenan before the NHL trade deadline at 3 p.m. on Thursday will be whether to deal captain Olli Jokinen, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

But now comes word the Los Angeles Kings would love nothing more than to take goalie Roberto Luongo off Keenan's hands. Reports in Los Angeles and Florida have suggested the Kings would send goalie Mathieu Garon and other players to the Panthers for Luongo, who has rejected a five-year, $30-million US offer.

As GMs do in these situations, Keenan told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel the rumours are not true.

"I haven't had discussions with anyone regarding Roberto," Keenan said. "Our hope is we get Roberto signed. That's what we felt in January and we feel the same."

The Panthers predicament is even worse than that of the Leafs. They are 12 points behind the Canadiens.

The Kings also are said to be interested in Curtis Joseph.

OTHER TRADE NOTES

- Of all people, goalie Patrick Lalime has made it clear he wants to be traded if the St. Louis Blues go with Curtis Sanford down the stretch. "Wherever I can go, I know I can help the team," Lalime said. It's the same Lalime who was run out of Ottawa after the Senators lost to the Leafs in the 2004 playoffs, and the same Lalime who spent a large chunk in the minors this season after a horrible start in St. Louis.

- Although they would like to add a defenceman who can play the point on the power play (Bryan McCabe?), the New York Rangers will not part with goalie Kevin Weekes, who has become the backup to hot rookie Henrik Lundqvist.

- Blues defenceman Eric Weinrich won't be surprised if general manager Larry Pleau does trade some players, including himself. "I think everybody probably can read between the lines and figure it out ... names are popping up everywhere," Weinrich said. Pleau: "If there's a prospect we can think can help, we'll look at doing something. We've got a good idea on the guys we like. We're not going to take any fliers."

BRIEFLY

There's at least one player who did not enjoy the Olympics. "I don't want to be in a situation where everybody depends on you and you don't feel good," Jaromir Jagr said. "That's why I've decided not to play for the Czech national team anymore. Mentally, it was killing me." ... During the first period of the Leafs-Sabres game in Buffalo on Friday, there was a video tribute to Pat LaFontaine, whose No. 16 was retired that night. A number of former Sabres teammates congratulated LaFontaine in the tribute, but the biggest cheer was for Ted Nolan, a former Sabres coach. Nolan now coaches the Moncton Wildcats, who will play host to the Memorial Cup in May, in the Quebec league ... Chris Chelios, 44, has big fan in Wayne Gretzky. "He works harder than any athlete I've ever been around as far as off-season conditioning goes. He's a maniac. I see him playing another three years, no question," Gretzky said.


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