Leafs should be happy playing Habs

Toronto Maple Leafs' Tomas Kaberle celebrates with Fredrik Sjostrom after defeating the New Jersey...

Toronto Maple Leafs' Tomas Kaberle celebrates with Fredrik Sjostrom after defeating the New Jersey Devils. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:20 PM ET

What would motivate the Maple Leafs the most on Saturday night at the Bell Centre?

Take your pick of:

- A chance to go 3-0 and pull themselves the closest to a playoff spot this late in the year since the spring of ’09.

- Beating Montreal in the 771st meeting of the old rivals as Saturday’s main dish on Hockey Night in Canada.

- Letting Jonas Gustavsson finish what he started after his last game there ended with a trip to hospital.

- Extending Mikhail Grabovski’s scoring streak to the longest by a Leaf in at least two years, in a rink where he’s loathed.

- Spoiling a pre-game federal government ceremony to ‘highlight the national historic significance of the Canadiens’.

- Setting a Toronto tone for the CFL’s Eastern Final on Sunday between the Argonauts and Alouettes.

- A win to mark Leafs general manager Brian Burke’s 1,000th NHL game as a team exec.

Or perhaps best of all, not letting down their fathers, who will be in the building as guests of the team as a gesture of thanks for years of sacrifice.

“If we knew their dads were the reason, we should keep them here,” joked coach Ron Wilson as 19 proud papas took in Friday’s practice at the MasterCard Centre before boarding the flight with their sons.

Wilson would stick with the first reason and let everything else fall into place. Toronto always plays well here (five of a possible six points last season), but neither is that an option, with Montreal bound to be sore from Thursday’s 3-0 home loss to Nashville and remembering one of their mere six losses was to the Leafs on opening night.

“The way (Canadiens) enter the building is electric, they do a great job of firing the crowd up,” Wilson said. “The francophone passion that seems to be there and their ability to express it ... there’s no building in hockey that equals it.”

But the weekend games always brings out the biggest, noisiest Leafs fan presence. The excitement level rises, both teams feed off of it and a close game makes it even more exciting, all of which didn’t help goaltender Gustavsson’s racing heartbeat back on Dec. 1. He was pulled after 20 minutes and sent by ambulance for hospital tests, eventually requiring his second ablation process in four months.

“I don’t think about it now,” said Gustavsson, who won his first game as the defacto starter on Thursday after Jean-Sebastien Giguere went out for a week or two with a groin strain. “I’ve been back there once, though I didn’t play. It’s a great building, it’s loud and you get excited.”

Gustavsson was credited with a partial shutout that night when Joey MacDonald came off the bench for the final 40 minutes of a 3-0 win.

“After the first period, I felt something weird,” Gustavsson recalled. “It’s not to say I didn’t want to play, but they had a game doctor there, he looked at me and said I couldn’t finish, I must go to the hospital to be safe. If it kept going that fast, it would be (dangerous). Maybe it would have slowed down, but we won, that’s the main thing.”

Gustavsson still has a lot to learn as far as mastering the nuances of the smaller NHL rink when he handles the puck, but neither is he the raw rookie off the boat from Sweden. His poise in closing out the 3-1 win over New Jersey on Thursday was noted by many and about 20,000 people going crazy in the seats isn’t likely to faze him.

“Now I know what it’s all about,” Gustavsson said. “I will just go there knowing what hotel we stay at, where the rink is and I can mentally prepare myself.”

After an eight-game losing streak in which they managed just 12 goals, the Leafs’ past two wins were sparked by eight home strikes, six on the power play. Grabovski scored in both and is gunning for a five-game streak, but this is a hard place for him to stay on the script.

“I hope he doesn’t play a one-on-one game which sometimes happens when he’s playing Montreal,” Wilson said. “I hope he uses his linemates (the equally productive Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur), because they’re playing solid hockey right now.”

“His line has been on the ice for the most goals for. Their plus-minus took a hit against Nashville (which led 4-1 and 3-0), but they’ve produced consistently. Now the puck is going in for Grabbo, but he’s improved himself on faceoffs. When he focuses and concentrates he’s probably our best defensive centre. When he’s into that, I know he’s not worried about points.”

Defenceman Tomas Kaberle will like to add to his 47 points in 60 games against the Habs.

“You want to keep this momentum going and building our confidence back,” he said. “We’ve played pretty good hockey games and now the key is finding ways to win more of them. It always starts with good goaltending then it goes up to defence and offence.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/sunhornby


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