UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Within hours of the release of the schedule came predictions from hockey romantics everywhere: A playoff spot for the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens would come down to Game 82.
Tomorrow's raison d'etre for Hockey Night In Canada was indeed set in motion last night at opposite ends of New York, where the Leafs lost to the Islanders and the Canadiens lost to the Rangers. The two ancient rivals will meet at the Air Canada Centre, their 682nd regular-season battle since 1917.
Of course, the Islanders remain in the hunt for that eighth playoff spot, but only wins in their games tomorrow afternoon against the Philadelphia Flyers and Sunday against the New Jersey Devils, plus a Leafs win tomorrow, would knock out both the Leafs and Habs.
Leafs coach Paul Maurice just shrugged yesterday morning when asked if it gnaws on him that his charges missed so many easy points through the year that would've avoided this fate.
"You get past the first 30 seconds of that thought, and the wasted opportunities. You realize we won many games with our injuries that we probably shouldn't. We didn't slip to this point, we earned the right to be here."
Surprisingly, the first six years of the Leafs' re-entry to the Eastern Conference with the Habs provided no playoff fireworks between them. Toronto tended to have the better of the season series and finished an average of 17 points higher.
That changed in 2006 when the Canadiens drubbed them in a late-March two-game series. The Leafs recovered to a degree, but missed the playoffs.
Five of this year's seven games were decided by a goal, four in shootouts, three of those won by the Habs, who lead the season series 4-3.
The Habs will skip the anticipated media mayhem in Toronto, opting to use the Rangers' secluded facility in Tarrytown, N.Y., this afternoon and fly in tonight. While Habs goaltender Cristobal Huet is healthy, expect rookie Jaroslav Halak to get the call again.
"Halak has come out of nowhere, but delivered the goods," Habs coach-turned-broadcaster Jacques Demers said. "This is the first time in awhile that Montreal has had some depth with players such as Halak, Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Andre Kostitsyn."