Top Shelf: Old East rivalries get renewed life

With this sprint of a season nearing its conclusion, there will be no shortage of important games appearing on the NHL landscape.

Come Saturday evening, however, all eyes should be on a pair of Eastern Conference rivalries that have returned to prominence after years of being pushed to the margins.

First and foremost is a clash between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, who make up one of most storied rivalries in all of professional sports, even if neither club has experienced much success in recent years.

In fact, the last time the Habs and Leafs made the playoffs in the same season was nine years ago in the spring of 2004, which also was the last postseason appearance for Toronto.

This season, however, sees Montreal sitting fourth in the East with 55 points and the Leafs six points back in fifth place. Of course, that means if the season ended today, the clubs would meet in the opening round of the playoffs, marking the first postseason encounter between the Habs and Leafs since the 1978-79 campaign.

Whether or not Toronto and Montreal get a chance to renew their postseason rivalry this spring after 30-plus years of waiting, Saturday's meeting in Toronto is sure to have a playoff atmosphere. After all, Maple Leafs fans have been forced to sit through the longest postseason drought in team history in recent years and they're likely to let it all hang out for the biggest game this rivalry has seen in years.

The self-proclaimed "Centre of the Hockey Universe," Toronto has some time to whip itself into a frenzy for Saturday's showdown. The Leafs have two full days off in between Wednesday's meeting with the New York Rangers and the marquee matchup at Air Canada Centre.

Montreal, meanwhile, is visiting Buffalo on Thursday before it can shift its focus to this weekend's big game.

Even during the lean years, though, the Habs-Leafs matchup still has had way more juice than the Rangers-Islanders rivalry. That's why Montreal and Toronto still play most of their games against each other in prime time and usually do so on Saturday nights, where they continue to produce huge TV ratings in Canada. The Leafs and Habs also played each other on opening night in 2013 and the clubs will close the season in Toronto on April 27.

The New York clubs will get their chance in the spotlight on Saturday night, however, as they face off in the most important game at Nassau Coliseum in quite some time.

Entering Thursday's action, the Rangers, Islanders and Ottawa Senators are all tied at 44 points for the East's final three playoff seeds. With a little over two weeks of games left in the regular season, Saturday's battle on Long Island -- the final scheduled meeting between the clubs -- could loom large over the conference's playoff race.

The playoff picture adds some serious clout to a rivalry that had seen better days heading into this season. The New York teams have rarely been good at the same time over the last few decades and they haven't faced each other in the playoffs since 1994, when the Rangers swept the Isles in the opening round en route to the franchise's last Stanley Cup title.

Of course, the Isles are mostly to blame for the lack of recent postseason encounters between these clubs. The Long Island residents have missed the playoffs in each of the past five springs and they have qualified for the postseason just four times in 17 seasons following the encounter in 1994.

Saturday's clash at the Coliseum could lay the groundwork for a revitalized rivalry between the clubs and it comes a few years before the Isles are set to move their home into the Rangers' backyard. The Isles are winding down their time at the building derisively called "The Mausoleum" and will begin calling Brooklyn's Barclays Center home beginning with the 2015-16 season.

With John Tavares, the Islanders' superstar in the making, signed with the club through 2017-18 and the Rangers usually near the top of the NHL's payroll list, this could be the start of an exciting new era for a rivalry that had gone stagnant.

There's always some top-notch rivalry games with playoff implications down the stretch of any NHL season, but Saturday's slate could breath new life into two of the league's most important matchups. Better catch them while you can because if recent history is any indicator, who knows the next time these rivalries will mean this much.