Add Atlanta to list of Toronto's rivals

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:33 AM ET

Over the years, the Maple Leafs have had their blood feuds with most of the usual suspects.

The Canadiens, the Flyers, the Bruins, the Red Wings all come to mind, from one era or another.

Until this season, nobody would have thought to include the Atlanta Thrashers in that company. Mostly, nobody thought about the Thrashers at all.

NASTY

But hockey just tends to get nasty sometimes and there's no accounting for it.

"I don't know why it is," said Leafs coach Pat Quinn at the end of Toronto's 4-1 win in their fourth and last meeting with Atlanta this season.

"They sure seem to headhunt a lot. Every game seems to have had an element of that sort of thing in it. I don't particularly like it.

"That's the kind of night you wish you could look down the bench and see a couple of guys who would go and put a little sandpaper out there. We're on the receiving end. I'd like to see our guys do a little more damage to them.

"I still like good hard hockey. I don't like cheap stuff. That seems to be the nature of the four games we had with them."

That said, the Leafs have exacted their revenge where it hurts most -- on the scoreboard.

They won all four meetings, outscoring the Thrashers 22-3.

The bad blood probably stems from the first game between these teams back in October when the Leafs won 9-1 and the Thrashers went a little squirrely late in the game, slipping into what Quinn felt was their "head-hunting" mode.

After that, the subsequent games all have been played on the edge of mayhem. And last night was no different.

The tone was set when Atlanta defenceman Garnet Exelby levelled Mats Sundin with a thunderous bodycheck, catching the Toronto captain full in the face with a shoulder pad. That precipitated a fight between Toronto's Chad Kilger and the Thrashers' Greg DeVries.

A few moments later, Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe appeared to be seriously injured on a vicious check from behind by Atlanta's Serge Aubin. Aubin was handed a five-minute major and a game misconduct while McCabe was carted off to the dressing room.

Remarkably, McCabe was back on the ice before the ensuing powerplay was over, much to the chagrin of Atlanta coach Bob Hartley, who felt McCabe was guilty of embellishment.

"To see McCabe back after 30 seconds speaks for itself," Hartley said. "Case closed."

By game's end, Sundin had been hit in the face twice more and tensions were running so high that even mild-mannered Tomas Kaberle got into the act, flattening Marc Savard for taking liberties with his captain.

Late in the second period, Tie Domi gambled with Toronto's two-goal lead, objecting to a clean hit and retaliating moments later, earning a roughing penalty.

Speaking of gambling, Janet Gretzky has nothing on Don Waddell, Atlanta's general manager. He put himself out on a rather thin limb last weekend with his now infamous "guarantee" the Thrashers would be in the playoffs, which is a place they never have been in their five-year history.

"We'll be in the playoffs," Waddell told an Atlanta columnist before last Saturday's win over the Florida Panthers that snapped a seven-game losing skid.

"If you want to write 'guarantee' I have no problem with that."

Well, five days later, he may have a problem with the fact the Thrashers now are five points behind Toronto for that last playoff spot.

Last night was a hockey game neither team could really afford to lose. Yes, there are still more than two months left in the season, but with a tight playoff race and two weeks off for the Olympics, every game is crucial.

SPRINT

"These games are important because we didn't play well in January and we lost ground," Quinn said. "We've got two more until we get a rest and then it's going to be a sprint when we come back.

"Those were very important points that were on the board tonight, as are the two games on the weekend, because we're in the middle of a real dogfight for that last playoff spot."


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