Loose lips sink seasons?

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

Forget black cats or walking under ladders.

Or breaking a mirror in the dressing room as part of an enraged tirade, for that matter.

With their respective teams engaged in a furious race to land a post-season berth in the Eastern conference, Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford and Maple Leafs head coach Paul Maurice have taken their superstitious beliefs to an entirely new level.

Despite being the best of friends, they have stopped talking to each other.

Chatting, after all, might bring bad luck, something no one wants -- or needs -- in the scramble for a playoff spot.

"We haven't spoken since (the playoff race) heated up about three weeks ago," Maurice said. "We have a good relationship but we also have the same superstitions."

The friendship between Rutherford and Maurice has survived much worse.

Rutherford fired Maurice as coach of the Hurricanes in December 2003. If they could remain buddies after that, they will stay that way through pretty much anything.

Having said that, both are fiercely competitive men who find themselves in the midst of a sprint to finish in the top eight in the East, a quest that continues tomorrow night when Maurice's Maple Leafs host Rutherford's Hurricanes at the Air Canada Centre.

Yes, it's a huge game. Then again, so is every tilt from here on in.

Both the Hurricanes and Leafs could not have received a worse result yesterday afternoon when the New York Rangers beat the New York Islanders 2-1 in Uniondale, N.Y. Because the game went into overtime, both Big Apple-area teams came out with at least a point, thereby making headway over idle Toronto and Carolina.

Just five points now separate sixth from 11th in the east. This is what is known as a hockey logjam.

The victory bumped the Rangers into sixth with 87 points, one more than the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Islanders, Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens are squeezed together with 84, with the Leafs still breathing at 82.

Not many predicted the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes might miss the post-season, a bitter pill that the Edmonton Oilers, the team Carolina defeated in the final last spring, have been forced to swallow.

"At the beginning of the season, I knew we'd be in a dogfight," Maurice said.

"I wasn't sure about them."

So what has ailed the defending champions this season?

"In our case, I do think the (Stanley Cup) hangover was there," Rutherford said yesterday.

Nevertheless, Rutherford is not using the after-effects related to last season's championship as an excuse.

"I think our team has played the way it should the past three weeks," he said. "I would have thought we should have been playing that way the past three months."

With a healthy Cam Ward back between the pipes for Carolina, the Hurricanes will need him to revert to his playoff form of a year ago in order to reach the post-season.

"Having him return is very big," Rutherford said. "Goaltending is such a key for all the teams vying for those few playoff spots.

"You hear people say that the regular season doesn't matter. Well, just ask the people involved with teams on the bubble right now, and they'll tell you how much the regular season means. I mean, right now, the playoffs have already started for all of us.

"People ask me if I scoreboard watch. Well, I don't run to the TV every time a contending team is on because, let's face it, there's not much I can do about it."

There is one exception.

"I have Centre Ice, so I've watched the Leafs quite a bit," Rutherford said.

"I've seen how the younger guys like the (Carlo) Colaiacovos, (Alex) Steens and (Matt) Stajans have brought their games to another level while elevating the play of veterans like Bates Battaglia. Paul has done a nice job. Of course, I already know what a fine coach he is.

"We'll be friends for life. That will never change. Even our careers won't affect that."

Nor, it seems, will a temporary dose of the silent treatment between the two men.


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