Kabs stabs Habs

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:33 PM ET

MONTREAL -- Tomas Kaberle has been the whipping boy of a bitter Leafs Nation in this young season, and it hasn't been pretty.

After back-to-back humiliating losses to the Ottawa Senators earlier in the week, the Toronto Sun was flooded with e-mails ripping the veteran defenceman and his four-year, $21.25-million US contract.

The most stinging shots came from frustrated fans who claimed the Leafs' No. 15 should, from here on in, be referred to as "Mrs. Kaberle" for his soft play.

Maybe Kaberle heard the criticism. Maybe the personable Czech blue-liner figured a Saturday night tilt against the Montreal Canadiens in front of an electric capacity crowd at the Bell Centre and a national TV audience was the perfect forum to shut up his legion of critics.

In any event, Kaberle was The Man for the Maple Leafs last night, registering his first career hat trick, adding an assist and scoring in the shootout of a 5-4 victory.

"You guys were on us, so maybe it was better that we were on the road," Kaberle told reporters after the game.

The career night certainly proved to be an elixir for Kaberle, who entered the game with just two points.

"I waited seven or eight years to get a hat trick," he said.

By helping his team snap a season-high, three-game losing streak, Kaberle became thefirst Leafs defenceman to score three goals in a game since Borje Salming accomplished the feat against the Chicago Blackhawks back on Oct. 10, 1981.

It has been a rough ride for Kaberle, 28, the past several months.

First, he was offered to the Edmonton Oilers as part of a trade package for defenceman Chris Pronger during t he summer. But the Leafs pulled out of the talks when t he Oilers also demanded Alex Steen, a youngster general manager John Ferguson did not want to part with.

Next came a groin injury in training camp, followed by a slow start to the season that had the skeptics whining that Ferguson had over paid him on the new deal.

Through it all, Ferguson stood behind his defenceman.

"I understand (t he crit icism)," Kaberle said. "It's all about winning. As for t he (trade) stuff, it's just part of the game."

Thanks to Kaberle's three goals and an A lexei Ponikarovsky first-period marker, the Leafs carried a 4-2 lead into the third. But when Sergei Samsonov and Sheldon Souray scored in t he final 2 0 minutes, the shootout loomed.

Kaberle was caugh t a bit off-guard when coach Paul Maurice selected him as the team's f irst shooter to face Habs goalie David Aebischer.

"I laughed a bit," he said.

Perhaps he remembered back to a moment during his junior days when his Czech Republic team faced Aebischer's Swiss side at the world championship.

"I went stick side on him in the shootout and missed," Kaberle said.

Facing the same goalie last night, he didn't miss.

Samsonov scored on Montreal's first shot as well, setting the stage for Kyle Wellwood's eventual winner. But on this night, no one could upstage Kaberle.

"We answered a lot of questions," Maurice said. "I guess Kaberle and (Bryan) McCabe should stay on our team. We'll keep them."

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REPORT CARD

B Forwards: Bounced back after two bad outings against Ottawa and carried the play to the Habs through the first two periods.

B- Defence: Tomas Kaberle's fourpoint career night was offset by the struggles of rookie Ian White and Hal Gill.

B Goaltending: After a solid first two periods, backup J-S Aubin looked shaky on a pair of third period goals. But he more than made up for it in the shootout.


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