Thursday's madness sets up elimination tilt

NEW YORK -- In the hallways outside the players' locker rooms at Madison Square Garden was the unmistakably pungent aroma of elephant.

The smells, a reminder of the circus that was on hand only hours before the start of Thursday's pivotal clash between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, were apropos given the spectacle-like atmosphere created by the Rangers' workmanlike 3-1 victory over Montreal.

The Habs' loss, coupled with the Leafs' 5-2 loss vs. the New York Islanders a few miles away in Uniondale, sets the stage for a one-game elimination matchup Saturday night in Toronto, a game that will mark the end of the regular season for both teams.

One game, loser goes home.

If the Habs win, they go on. The Leafs? They must win, then hope the Islanders drop at least a point in one of their final two games against New Jersey and Philadelphia in order to avoid being postseason observers for the second straight season.

"Well, it's crazy. It's almost unimaginable that it would come down to one game against our arch-enemies," said Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray.

"When you think about it, it's worth more than a playoff series in many ways," added Mike Johnson, a former Leaf who grew up in the Toronto area. A playoff series lasts no more than seven games, Johnson said. "This is seven months of work really coming down to one night. That's a lot riding on one game."

Throw in a national "Hockey Night in Canada" audience, and the rabid press gangs that follow both teams, and the term "pressure cooker" comes to mind.

Even before Thursday's games, Montreal management decided the Canadiens would spend an extra day in the New York area, skating there in the afternoon and then flying into Toronto in time for dinner as opposed to flying into Toronto after Thursday's game and practicing in Toronto as is the norm.

"I don't think too many guys are upset at it because we know what kind of circus it's going to be over there," Souray said. "We have to focus on what we've got to do. There's going to be a lot of distraction there. But guys who've been around, we know what we have to do, what our focus needs to be, where our heads have to be at, because there's going to be a lot going on."

The ability to put everything in perspective will be key.

"You have to remember it's only a hockey game," Johnson said. "It's not world peace we're trying to [accomplish]."

Good point.

For the Leafs and the Canadiens, Saturday's game will be about putting behind Thursday's desultory performances when a victory was crucial.

The Canadiens, perhaps knowing they had more wiggle room than the Leafs with the ability to take a loss and still qualify for the playoffs, started sluggishly. Rookie netminder Jaroslav Halak allowed a long, hard Petr Prucha shot to beat him stick-side just 2:53 into the game. The Habs never seemed to get back on track until late in the game.

"You would think that in a game with that much on the line, we would come out with more passion and more energy. Once again, I don't know why, but we sat there and watched them for 30 minutes," said Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau.

Although Halak righted himself and was solid through the end of the second period, the Rangers already built a three-goal lead and Carbonneau replaced Halak with Cristobal Huet, who played the third period. Huet, out since Feb. 14 with a hamstring injury, was surprisingly good stopping all eight shots he faced.

The move may pay off in spades for Carbonneau, who has been under significant pressure with rumors of rifts in the dressing room and injuries to key players coinciding with March's slide to the edge of the playoff bubble. Although Carbonneau wouldn't say, it is likely he will go with Huet. Huet has more experience than the 21-year-old Halak, who started the season in the East Coast Hockey League.

"Jaro's been unbelievable. The reason why we're here right now is because of him. There's no way that I'm going to blame him," Carbonneau said.

But by using Huet on Thursday, Carbonneau gave Huet a chance to test himself and build some confidence instead of simply thrusting him into the fire on Saturday. Asked if he'd already made up his mind about who would start, Carbonneau smiled.

"There's a pretty good chance that I know," Carbonneau said.

Almost lost in the discussion of Saturday's clash was the fact the Rangers once again demonstrated they may be the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference right now. They have gained at least a point in 10 of their past 11 games and jumped ahead of Tampa Bay into the sixth seed (the Lightning have two games remaining to the Rangers' one). For a team that looked dead and buried a few weeks ago, the turnaround has been nothing short of stunning.

"It's not a matter of buying in," Rangers coach Tom Renney said after the game. "It is a matter of understanding that you have to sacrifice a little bit of yourself in order to have success.

"I think what happened here in the last month or so, and I don't know that it culminates with tonight, is that we have been more complete thinkers."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.