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Leafs continue playoff push against rival Habs

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL -- With four wins in their last six games plus an overtime loss to New Jersey the last time out, the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing well enough to start thinking about a potential playoff berth.

Heading into their game Saturday night against the archrival Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs were sitting 8 points out of eighth spot with three teams between them and the Atlanta Thrashers.

"We're trying to just close the gap and see where we can get," said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who will get the start instead of rookie James Reimer against his hometown Canadiens. "Our goal at the beginning of the year was to make the playoffs. Obviously, we haven't chosen the easiest route. But I firmly believe if we keep playing like this, we'll give ourselves a chance."

Considering what the Calgary Flames have done in the Western Conference to get back in the playoff picture, and that even the New Jersey Devils are closing in on the postseason discussion, discounting the Leafs' chances would be unwise.

"You're coming down to it now, you have to get wins when you can," Leafs forward Kris Versteeg said. "We need these points and to take advantage of the way we're playing."

Unlike the Flames -- who banished any kind of playoff talk from the dressing room in December and chose instead to break the rest of the season down into 3-game segments -- Leafs coach Ron Wilson says he sees no problem using the postseason as a motivational carrot for his players.

"We talk about the standings all the time, we just have to creep our way up," Wilson said. "Our focus every night is on the next period and on the game as a whole, but [the playoffs] are always in the back of our minds."

In order to bring them to the forefront, the Leafs will need to continue their strong play this season against the Canadiens, whom they've beaten in two of the three meetings.

"They give us some trouble, but they give a lot of teams trouble," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "They have three balanced lines and we know they love playing here. It should be a battle."

A Canadiens loss would give them their first four-game losing streak of the season, though one of them was an overtime defeat Thursday night against the New York Islanders. Montreal has uncharacteristically allowed at least four goals in each of those three losses.

They did that only 12 times in the previous 53 games.

"We gave up too many scoring chances, more than we've been giving up all year," Martin said. "But we looked at the tape and identified where those scoring chances are coming from, and if we can do a better job off the rush and in our defensive zone, coverage we should be fine."

The Canadiens will be missing Hal Gill for a second straight game with an upper-body injury, and Michael Cammalleri wil miss his 10th contest with a shoulder injury. Mathieu Darche will also miss his second game with a lower-body injury, but he did take part in the morning skate Saturday, thus refuting a local report that the rest of his season was in jeopardy.

"I'm doing pretty good," Darche said with a smile after the skate. "Pretty good for a guy who's season is apparently over."

One significant lineup change for the Leafs is the loss of Colby Armstrong because of blurred vision. He may only be a third-line left winger, but the Leafs have a 3-10-3 record this season when Armstrong doesn't play. When he does, that record climbs to 20-16-3.

Carey Price gets the call in goal for the Canadiens after sitting out the last game. He will attempt to improve on his 6-5-0 career mark against the Leafs, which includes a 2.79 goals against average and .919 save percentage.

His opponent in the Leafs net has an excellent history facing his hometown team. Giguere is 7-2-1 all-time against the Canadiens with a 2.58 GAA and .912 save percentage.

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