'Better than a Game 7'

MIKE ZEISBERGER

, Last Updated: 7:34 AM ET

Jean Beliveau already could sense the buzz last month.

In Toronto for a banquet honouring the 1967 StanleyCup champion Maple Leafs, the classy Hall-of-Famer found himself approached by fans yearning to see hockey's two most storied rivals lock horns on a playoff-type, winner-take-all stage.

"I had so many people come up to me at the time saying: 'Wouldn't it be great if it all came down to the final game of the season between the Leafs and Canadiens?" the former Habs great recalled yesterday. "I guess they got their wish."

Like millions around the country, Le Gros Bill will be in front of the tube this evening to watch yet another chapter in the Habs-Leafs rivalry, one that has deep implications.

The Canadiens control their own destiny. A win lands them a playoff spot.

A Habs loss, coupled with a New York Islanders defeat in one of their remaining two games, means the Leafs waltz into the Stanley Cup dance.

Whatever happens, it stands to be the most important game between these two teams since they met in the playoffs 28 years ago. For the record, Guy Lafleur & Co., swept that 1979 second-round series.

"This is as close to a playoff as there is," Beliveau said. "There is so much tradition here. The last time the Leafs won the Cup (in '67), it came against us. Having played for Montreal at the time, we would have liked to win it but that is history.

"What a great rivalry. The atmosphere is unequalled when the Leafs play in Montreal and I'm sure there will be an electric atmosphere there (tonight), too."

With scalpers asking $1,700 for two tickets yesterday, there had better be.

Beliveau, of corse, will be cheering for his Habs. Don Cherry won't.

While his colleagues at the CBC should be giddy at the potential audience size tonight -- one that could well set a mark for the most-watched regular season game in the history of Hockey Night in Canada -- Grapes will be backing the Leafs all the way.

"I'm not a broadcaster, I'm a fan," Cherry said. "As a boy in Kingston, I wore a Leafs jersey, so supporting Toronto isn't new. I've never made a secret of that.

"It's just great to see these two teams in this situation. It's almost better than a Game 7 in the playoffs."

Cherry opened an old wound when asked why the teams have gone so long without a playoff encounter.

"They would have met in the Stanley Cup final in 1993 and Toronto would have won," Grapes said. "But for some reason, Kerry Fraser refused to call (Wayne) Gretzky for high-sticking Dougie Gilmour in the face. Had he done that, the Leafs would have gone all the way."

The incident in question came in overtime of Game 6 between Gilmour's Leafs and Gretzky's Los Angeles Kings. Fraser's famous non-call allowed Gretzky's overtime winner to tie the series at 3-3, setting the stage for the Kings to win Game 7 at the Gardens before going on to lose to Patrick Roy's Habs in the final.

Said Gilmour last night: "To this day, people still come up to me and say: "Where did (Gretzky) high-stick you? Where's the scar?

"Looking back, I would have loved to have been part of a Leafs-Canadiens Stanley Cup final. The history. The tradition. It would have been so neat. But we had our shot against L.A. Even after (the Gretzky incident), we had Game 7 at home. That's all you can ask."

They might not all be cheering for the same team, but Gilmour, Cherry and Beliveau are unified in their love for a rivalry on the verge of regaining its rightful place.

Ottawa who?


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