TORONTO - Mikhail Grabovski feels like he has something to prove to the Montreal Canadiens.
Almost four years after being to dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Belarusian centre still burns at the thought of Habs executives he believes underestimated his ability. As a result, Grabovski openly admits he carries extra motivation into games against his former team — the next of which comes Saturday night at Air Canada Centre.
"In Montreal, I was young," he said Friday. "I didn't have that much experience. (In Toronto), they gave me ... a lot of ice time. I think I started to do well here. But probably if I'm staying longer in Montreal, I can do probably the same.
"But some people (didn't) believe in me."
A motivated Grabovski is a good thing for the Maple Leafs. In recent weeks, he's played his best hockey since last season and helped propel the team into playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
Since the start of January, Toronto is 9-1-1 when Grabovski registers a point and just 1-5-0 when he doesn't, including consecutive losses earlier this week in Winnipeg and Philadelphia. At the same time, the 28-year-old has had to deal with trade rumours that have played a role in his improved play.
"It's kind of motivation, but there's more motivation just to make the playoffs and help my teammates win the games," said Grabovski. "If you see last year, I had kind of a bad start. In January, I started scoring goals — same as this year."
Grabovski's career took off after the July 2008 trade that brought him to Toronto from Montreal for a prospect and second-round draft pick.
His time with the Habs was fairly rocky. Grabovski feuded with former teammate and countryman Sergei Kostitsyn — something he alluded to Friday by saying "players who I didn't really like, they don't play any more in Montreal" — and famously left the team to see his agent after being made a healthy scratch in March 2008.
However, the former fifth-round draft pick was also part of the Hamilton Bulldogs team that won the Calder Cup in 2007 and was only given 27 career games with the NHL team before being shipped out of town.
"For me, I don't think I didn't do anything (wrong) in the past," said Grabovski. "I have great year in Hamilton and I win Calder Cup. I think a lot of players who play on that team can play in Montreal right now, but they decided to trade people. They make different team."
There are only a handful of players remaining from Grabovski's time in Montreal, including goaltender Carey Price, forward Andrei Kostitsyn and defenceman Josh Gorges. The team finds itself nine points behind the Maple Leafs and is in danger of missing the playoffs for just the second time since the NHL lockout.
Earlier this week, the Catholic church placed ads in Montreal newspapers urging people to pray for the Habs to rally for an eighth-place finish.
The Leafs aren't in need of any divine intervention but can't afford to let the current losing streak linger. And with opposing teams focusing their attention on the top line of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak, it may be up to Grabovski's line to pick up some slack down the stretch.
The unit of Grabovski between Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin thrived after being put together in training camp prior to last season and was reunited last month just before the all-star break.
"It's great playing with him," MacArthur said of Grabovski. "I think he's one of the faster, more agile centremen in the league."
MacArthur first recalls encountering Grabovski as an opponent in the American Hockey League, when he was a "no-name guy" who dominated despite weighing about 140 pounds.
Much has changed since then. For starters, Grabovski has grown up in a hurry while having two children in the past 14 months — "I'm a family guy," he says proudly — and he's set to command in excess of US$5 million a season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.
That might never have happened had the Leafs not given him a chance to play.
"I always say thanks to (former Habs GM) Bob Gainey because he traded me," said Grabovski, who has repeatedly stated his intention to re-sign with the Leafs.
Notes: Leafs coach Ron Wilson said James Reimer would start in goal against Montreal. ... Kulemin missed Friday's practice for the birth of his second child. ... Toronto forward Darryl Boyce is expected to draw back into the lineup for the first time since Jan. 14. There was no word on who would come out to make room for him.