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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, centre, waves a rally towel with fans before the Ottawa Senators face the New York Rangers in Game 4 of the NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final playoff hockey game in Ottawa April 18, 2012.

Even dedicated Leafs fan Stephen Harper is cheering for the rival Montreal Canadiens in the NHL playoffs.

The prime minister told a Montreal audience Thursday it's not the first time he's rooted for the Habs and he even took a good-natured swipe at his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs.

While growing up in Toronto in the 1970s, Harper said he always hoped to see a Canadian team hoist the Stanley Cup, so he found himself backing the then-dominant Canadiens once the Leafs had been knocked out of contention.

"And since that usually occurred in January, I was cheering for the Canadiens from January on," Harper joked to a crowd that included Canadiens co-owner Andrew Molson and the legendary Guy Lafleur, who starred for the Habs in the 70s.

"So, we wish them the best. They've got a good team. (There's) a lot of parity in the league and they've got a great chance."

Harper, who was in Montreal to announce funding for autism and Alzheimer's disease research, made the comments after being asked by a reporter about his prediction for the Habs' series against the Boston Bruins, which was to begin Thursday evening.

He said as the lone Canadian playoff team the Habs are the country's only hope for a Stanley Cup victory, something that hasn't happened since Montreal's 1993 title.

"That's what I want to see," Harper said. "We'll be cheering at our house for the Canadiens ... throughout the series."

Before answering the Habs-Bruins query, Harper suggested it should have been directed to someone else in the crowd.

"Why are you asking me this question when Guy Lafleur is here?" Harper said. "The real expert."

Lafleur told reporters after the event that he likes Montreal's chances in what he predicted would be a physical series against Boston.

"During the season they played well against the Bruins, so I'm sure the Bruins are maybe more nervous than the Montreal Canadiens right now," said Lafleur, who is a spokesman for a Montreal hospital foundation that assists children and youth with mental-health issues.

"I just hope that they're going to win one game out of two in Boston, and we'll see after."