BUFFALO, N.Y. - The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs face off in the final two Saturdays of the NHL's regular season but unlike last year, the stakes have changed. Dramatically.
"It's certainly a different situation and I think we're pretty excited about that," Canadiens winger Michael Ryder said with a smile Friday.
The Habs, who faced the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night, play Saturday at the Air Canada Centre - last spring's scene of the crime. A wild 6-5 loss to the Leafs knocked the Canadiens out of the playoffs in their last game of the season. It's a defeat that stung mightily.
"I don't think anybody remembers that game anymore," star forward Alex Kovalev insisted after the pre-game skate at HSBC Arena. "It happened and it's in the past. This is a different team and we're playing differently."
This time the Leafs are already out and Montreal's only concern is trying to finish first in the Eastern Conference.
"Toronto is by far our biggest rivals, and to know they're not in the playoffs - I'm not going to say I'm not happy about it," said Montreal defenceman Josh Georges, chuckling. "They're the ones who knocked us out last year. It would have been nice if we were the ones who knocked them out."
Imagine Saku Koivu's reaction moments after the 6-5 loss to Toronto last April had someone told him only 12 months later his team would be battling for first place in the East.
"Obviously I would have been a little surprised by that comment," said Koivu. "But at the same time our young guys are a year older and more experienced. And the key is that we've been a lot more consistent this season. We did show signs last year with a strong first half that we could be a good team."
But the Habs faded badly in the second half last season, which set up the last-game drama in Toronto.
Given the craziness of the Montreal-Toronto games since the lockout, where it seems every single game goes to overtime or is decided by one goal, playing the Leafs without a playoff spot on the line is a relief for the Canadiens.
"For us it's really a good feeling that we secured a playoff spot," said Koivu. "We don't have to look at the last Saturday game against Toronto (at the Bell Centre next week) as a life and death situation. But you know, those games are exciting and interesting. You can feel the tension. It was too bad we lost that game last year but I thought everybody was really excited to be part of it."
The Leafs put on a late run this month and had their fans back on the bandwagon last weekend after big wins in Buffalo and Ottawa had them four points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
While Leaf fans entered the week dreaming of maybe sneaking into eighth, Habs fans were settling into first place in the conference. Which of course had some people dreaming of a Montreal-Toronto first-round series.
"I couldn't even imagine our two teams meeting in the playoffs," said Gorges. "You look at the history of these two teams, and even the games in the regular season over the last few years. No matter how far apart the two teams are in the standings it's never a blowout game, it's always tight. You know you are in for a war against Toronto so I couldn't even imagine a seven-game series against them."
Koivu admits he wonders what it would have been like. The teams haven't met in the playoffs since 1979.
"I think that would be a series that I would like to be part of before I'm done playing hockey," said Koivu. "Because that would be beyond any expectation. It would be crazy. Both cities would just go nuts for that series. It would be fun to experience that. We'll see if it ever happens."
The dream ended this year when Boston swept a home and home with Toronto this week to knock the Leafs out of contention. A Toronto-Montreal matchup will have to wait.
"Maybe next year," said Ryder.
In the meantime, the Habs are focused on the here and now. Head coach Guy Carbonneau gathered his players on the ice Friday morning to remind them what's at stake.
"We win our five games we're guaranteed to finish first in our conference - which is a big accomplishment," Carbonneau told reporters afterwards.
And as Carbonneau pointed out, maybe next Saturday's game in Montreal will matter after all.
"Who knows, we might end up next Saturday needing to win that game to clinch (first in the conference)," he said.