NEW YORK (AP) -The Montreal Canadiens made their road to the playoffs that much harder.
With one game left in the regular season, the Canadiens need to win at Toronto on Saturday night to ensure that hockey's most storied franchise will have a shot at a 25th Stanley Cup title.
Winning a single game to control their own destiny might not seem to be the most daunting task, but the Canadiens' 3-1 loss at the New York Rangers on Thursday night was their eighth defeat in 10 games away from Montreal. A victory on the ice of their fiercest rival is far from a sure thing.
Add in that the Maple Leafs also need the game to have a chance of getting into the playoffs, and the contest shapes up to be one that captures Canada's attention.
"You will have two teams playing for their season," Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said. "It is going to be a great game. We have to focus and re-concentrate."
Carbonneau might not get much sleep between now and when the puck drops on Saturday night. He must decide who to start in net, the incumbent Cristobal Huet - who lost his job during a lengthy injury - or the surprisingly sturdy backup Jaroslav Halak.
Huet played for the first time in 22 games Thursday when he came on in relief of Halak to begin the third period. Halak, who had won seven of eight starts, was pulled after he gave up three goals on 25 New York shots.
By then it was 3-0, and Huet's job was to keep the Rangers in check. He did by stopping all eight shots he faced, but the Canadiens offense mustered only Sheldon Souray's power-play goal.
"That's one of the reasons we put Cristobal in net. I wanted him to see some pucks in a game situation," Carbonneau said. "Jaro has been unbelievable. He is the reason we are here now. There is no way I blame him.
"Cristobal has the experience."
Where the Canadiens are now is in eighth place, the last open spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Rangers got in with Thursday's win and carried in the Tampa Bay Lightning with them.
Now Montreal, Toronto and the New York Islanders are competing to see who will be the eighth club. The Islanders stayed alive by virtue of the Canadiens' loss and a 5-2 victory over Toronto at home.
The Islanders only avenue to qualify for the postseason is to win at Philadelphia on Saturday and at New Jersey on Sunday. But if Montreal beats Toronto, then the Islanders and Maple Leafs will both be eliminated Saturday.
"We knew if we lost (Thursday), we had another chance on Saturday," Carbonneau said. "I wish we came out a little harder and gave ourselves a chance and not have Saturday be the night."
The Canadiens are only 16-21-3 on the road, quite a contrast from the friendly confines of the Bell Centre where they have won nine straight. But they won't play there again this season unless its in the playoffs.
Not even a hearty section of young Montreal backers, who waved flags, banners and supportive signs, blew horns and cheered from the front of the upper deck throughout the lackluster performance, could lift the Canadiens out of the road doldrums.
"Go Habs Go," the chants went before being drowned out by full-throated cheers of "Let's Go Rangers," as New York took control of the game with a quick first-period goal. Two more scores in the second sealed Montreal's fate Thursday.
"We didn't have the urgency early as well as the desperation we have been playing with the last few weeks," Souray said. "They got a good jump on us. They were able to get the momentum, get the lead, and they kept it throughout. We just sat back."
Carbonneau decided to keep the team in New York on Thursday night, delaying the arrival into the enemy territory of Toronto as long as possible.
"Nothing has come easy for us," Souray said. "We're going to need a real good game come Saturday. It's for everything. We have our game to make it in."