MONTREAL - Seven months and 81 games later, the Canadiens' season now hinges on one game. And they aren't alone. Staring across the ice from the Habs Saturday night will be the archrival Maple Leafs in what is shaping up to be the NHL's most anticipated regular season showdown in recent memory.
The scenario is "simple": A Canadiens victory or overtime/shootout loss will keep them in that eighth spot ahead of Toronto and crush the Leafs' playoff dreams. If the Habs pick up just one point, they'll need the Islanders to drop one of their games to propel them to the postseason. As for the Leafs, only a regulation win over the Montreal will prevent them from missing the playoffs for the second straight season, provided the Islanders come up empty-handed in both of their contests.
With such high stakes, few televisions across Canada won't be tuned into RDS or CBC on Saturday night. Many hockey fans had April 7 circled on their calendars long before it became a grudge match with a playoff spot on the line.
"That game definitely stood out as soon as the schedule was released," said Mike Johnson. "Over the last month or so I think everyone has wondered whether it could actually all come down to this last game in Toronto. And here we are and it's actually happening. I guess whoever put together the NHL schedule must be smiling right now."
A native of Scarborough, ON, and a one-time Leaf to boot, there's no question where Johnson's heart lies leading up to the big game in Hogtown.
"It's us or them and that's just how it's got to be," said Johnson. "It would be great for Canada if we could both squeeze in there, but that doesn't seem very likely. I'm sure I won't be too popular a guy back home if we eliminate the Leafs, but if it means we make the playoffs I could live with that."
Even 12-year veteran Saku Koivu now finds himself in uncharted waters.
"This is something I don't think any of us have ever experienced," explained the Habs' captain. "This is exactly the type of battle the league has been waiting for. And having it on national TV is going to make it even more special."
With the countdown to the winner take all battle with the Leafs officially on, Koivu and Johnson aren't the only ones looking forward to it.
"The atmosphere is going to be absolutely nuts," said Sheldon Souray. "Hey, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs for all the marbles, it's what the fans want and the whole country will be watching. Playing in big games like that is what it's all about for us too. We've been playing for our playoff lives for a while now, so we'll be ready for whatever they throw at us."
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com