Buildup to Belarusian brawl overshadows Habs-Leafs

Boxing fans are all agog in Montreal as they anticipate a possible light heavyweight tilt on Saturday night between a pair of improbable Belarusian hockiey brawlers.

Grabovski and Kostitsyn have been yapping all week

Boxing fans are all agog in Montreal as they anticipate a possible light heavyweight tilt on Saturday night between a pair of improbable Belarusian brawlers.

The backdrop finds the Toronto Maple Leafs taking on the host Canadiens (CBC Sports,, 7 p.m. ET) in a battle between two long-time rivals going in opposite directions.

Coverage all week in the respective local media, however, seems to have left the game itself in also-ran status while the feud between a pair of countrymen that first bubbled to the surface in a Jan. 9 game won by Montreal has taken centre stage.

In the blue and white corner this Saturday is Mikael Grabovski, a five-foot-11, 179-pound non-brawler who was a Habs' prospect and is currently the most hated man in the Bell Centre.

In the bleu, blanc et rouge corner stands Sergei Kostitsyn, brother of Andrei and, at five-foot-11, 196 pounds, carrying a weight advantage over his Toronto opponent.

The two had to be restrained from fighting by the officials in January as both shoved at linesmen in what was interpreted as an attempt to get at each other.

Grabovski was the more aggressive of the two against a striped shirt, earning himself a three-game suspension. He left the ice to a chorus of boos, plastic cups and foul hand signals.

This week, the pair hyped up their possible battle as best they could.

"I think he is not Belarusian now, he is French, because I never fight with Belarusian guys," said Grabovski, of Kostitsyn. "I don't know why he wants to fight with me.

"If he wants to fight, we'll go in the street and, every minute of every day, I'll wait for him and we'll fight."

Grabovski has apparently been reading a biography of late Leafs' founder Conn Smythe, who famously said "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice."

There's no telling what The Major would have thought of the Belarusian behemoths.

Habs need a victory

Meanwhile, back at the hockey game, the Canadiens need this one rather badly.

Still sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference at 29-17-6, the Habs are just 4-6 over the last 10 and playing less than inspired hockey.

Montreal lost 3-2 on the road to Buffalo despite firing 37 shots at Sabres' netminder Ryan Miller.

What made the loss worse was a pair of lazy penalties taken by Alex Kovalev within a nine-minute span of the third period. The star forward is not scoring and can't be making coach Guy Carbonneau happy with his poor choices.

The Habs had been 11-2-1 from Dec. 18-Jan. 17 before swooning and it's starting to get on the players' nerves.

"Every time it seems like we're playing catch-up," said Chris Higgins after the Canadiens trailed yet again into the third period on Friday.

"We need to get aggressive."

They need to do it quickly, as after Saturday the club leaves for its longest road trip of the season, a six-gamer that starts in Calgary. They've lost five straight outside of La Belle Province.

Playing without top scoring forward Robert Lang, out with Achilles tendon surgery, isn't helping either.

Toronto heading for terrible

So along come the Maple Leafs, a team whose management is hoping for a bottom-three finish in this, the first of a multi-year rebuilding scheme. They offer up a defence currently ranked last in the league with a 3.58 goals against average.

That has led coach Ron Wilson to make a number of unflattering comments in the press about goaltender Vesa Toskala.

"I would have expected Vesa to have much better numbers," Wilson said, pointing to his backstop's 6.00 goals against mark against the Habs this season.

"He has been inconsistent at best. He has played some solid games, some poor. We have tried to find some consistency."

But not too much, you understand. After all, top junior John Tavares and Viktor Hedman are sitting out there this summer.