Leaf, 'Canes should be pulling for each other

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:24 AM ET

The Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes have launched a mutual playoff booster club.

Should the Leafs bring their improbable dream full circle, there is a good chance they could be facing the 'Canes in the first round.

And they can both aid each other tonight.

A Hurricanes win over the Lightning in the rematch of last night's 5-4 shootout victory for Carolina would both stall Tampa for the Leafs and provide themselves with two big points in their conference title race with Ottawa. Toronto would have to do its part by beating the Senators tonight.

Now if the Leafs could only get the Boston Bruins to co-operate this afternoon in Atlanta. The Thrashers have the easiest schedule of the three Eastern tailgaters, facing three non-playoff teams. Today is the last game of the year for the Bruins, who have just five wins since the Olympic break.

Atlanta finishes up on the road Monday in Washington and Tuesday in Florida. An Ilya Kovalchuk-Alexander Ovechkin showdown should ensure the game is full value, while the Leafs already know that Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and the Panthers are not going to go out quietly.

Leafs general manager John Ferguson was openly cheering for Sidney Crosby as he followed a tight Penguins-Lightning result on the out-of-town scoreboard from the press box in Philadelphia last week.

But he'll now change support to Ovechkin, who faces both the Thrashers and the Lightning in his final games, while Toronto ends its schedule against Sid The Kid.

SENS LOAD RAY GUN

There is still no confirmation on Dominik Hasek's playoff status, as he continues play peek-a-boo with the media. One day he is in full gear taking shots -- as he did yesterday -- the next he stays on the ice just a few minutes and announces he is not comfortable.

So, if the Sens wind up playing the Leafs, Habs or Thrashers, head coach Bryan Murray is dropping strong hints that Ray Emery will be in net.

"As you look around, there are lots of kids playing goal this year," Murray said, no doubt referring to Buffalo, Carolina and the New York Rangers. "And so, if Ray happens to be the guy that we are playing at the beginning of any series, he won't be abnormal in the league anymore."

But there is no question the Sens were counting on a vintage Hasek, who held a league-best 2.09 goals-against average and .925 save percentage when his groin went awry. Otherwise, the rest of the wounded Sens are trickling back into the lineup. Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara and, by next week, Chris Phillips. Winger Martin Havlat is expected to test his surgically repaired shoulder in tonight's game in Toronto.

Murray says he is not fazed that Hasek has now missed two months.

"But, until you see him actually in there, playing and playing well, there is concern," Murray said.

Ottawa's captain, Daniel Alfredsson, says the Senators have complete faith in Emery, though the latter has a minor hip problem.

JACQUES STILL A WILD MAN

The Minnesota Wild will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, but GM Doug Risebrough will exercise the option on Jacques Lemaire as coach for another season, At 61 this October, it could be Lemaire's swan song, particularly if the Wild don't move back to contender status.

"Inside, I'd like to say: 'This is a good team. We're going to make the playoffs this year because we should'," Lemaire said of next season's Wild.

"(But) I'm looking at the standings, and I'm wondering, are we capable of making the playoffs? I'd like to have that feeling that we've got the guys."

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Canadiens coach Bob Gainey has struck gold with the newly formed line of Alex Kovalev, Mike Ribeiro and Jan Bulis. The latter has a career-high 20 goals. Five games ago, Bulis was chained to the press box for the fifth time in six games, but Kovalev lobbied to get him on his line. Bulis will be an unrestricted next season ... The Habs are expected to be without Steve Begin (sprained knee) and defenceman Francis Bouillon (bruised ankle) for the first round ... The Avalanche showed why it retains a loyal fan base in a competitive Denver market. As well as making the playoffs every year since arriving from Quebec and winning two Cups, the club marked the 10th anniversary of the move with 10 fan appreciation prizes, ranging from a $1-million US donation to 10 charities to giving away a new home ... Martin Biron had to miss the Sabres' team photo because of the birth of his second daughter. Media relations' man Chris Bandura stepped into his uniform and will have the goalie's head superimposed at a later date.


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