Spring is in the air here in Montreal, and that can only mean one thing.
But the buzz going into tonights opening game of round one, is a far cry from what was being circulated amongst fans and media a year ago.
Looking back 12 months, it was all about the underdog Montreal Canadiens who were about to face the President Trophy winning, powerhouse Washington Capitals. The song and dance was more about how the Habs had barely made it into the post-season, and how quickly they would be dispensed by Alex Ovechkin and his crew.
We all know how that turned out.
19 games later, after sending both the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins to an early golfing season, the talk became less about their being ousted in 5 games by the Philadelphia Flyers, and more about the accomplishment they had achieved.
That talked spilled over into the pre-season for 2010-2011. Were the Canadiens really contenders in this league, or was the absence of the netminder that carried them for most of those 19 playoff games going to seriously effect their ability to perform over the regular seasons 82 games?
The focus was on the first rematches against the Capitals, Penguins, and Flyers. What many thought would be the proving ground that this team was here to make another run.
But it’s April once again, and the landscape has changed. Back in the spotlight is the age old rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins. The most bitter and contested rivalry in the history of the sport.
And tonight marks the 33rd post-season contest between the two Original Six franchises.
There are several things that will be in the back of the minds of many Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge players leading into this series. One will be the beating laid on them 2 years ago, when the Big Bad “B’s” swept them in the first round of the playoffs. Bell Center fans booing Carey Price and taunting him as only fans of Montreal can do.
Another thought that won’t stray too far into the subconscious is the Chara hit on Pacioretty. Not that there is still the same level of outcry regarding that hit, as time has at least concealed the anger. But to believe that the Habs have put it behind them entirely would be akin to thinking that water isn’t wet.
I’m sure the 7-0 shellacking that the Bruins imposed on the Canadiens in their last meeting in Boston will also be a fresh reminder of what that team can do to any opponent. I can assure you there’s been a lot of talk revolved around that game, both on the practice rink, and in the video room.
But are these things enough fuel to propel la Flanelle on to victory, over a team that many consider will take the Eastern Conference Championship in stride?
Most likely not … The sordid history between these two teams over the decades, is something that both teams rely on to spark energy against their opponent.
In reality though, there are many things to add to that fuel that can get this “underdog” team to a place of victory.
Over the course of the regular season, Montreal walked away with 4 wins in 6 meetings. In reality – despite the media hype regarding the February 9th “Beat-down in Boston” – the Habs only walked out of Boston that night being defeated by two goals in a scoring frenzy match-up. Not a night that either goaltender cares to remember, as Price faced 33 SOG and Thomas saw 34.
Reality shows that the only true meltdown the Canadiens had all season against the Bruins, was in the final meeting in Boston. Prior to that, Les Boys managed to soundly close out wins against both Rask (2) and Thomas (2).
So let’s break it down a little. What will it take for the Montreal Canadiens to walk past the Boston Bruins and make another run for the Stanley Cup?
First of all, they need to Play the System. This is a team that succeeds on speed, not size. The Bruins have a way of trying to draw teams into their form of play, and this is something that Montreal can not succumb to. Skating fast to the corners, moving towards the puck in both offensive and defensive zones, can ensure puck possession that will be paramount. The neutral zone has to become a virtual no mans land for the Bruins. And the ability to succeed in quick and accurate tape to tape passing will throw the Bruins off their game.
Despite their lack of size, they also have to Get to the Front of the Net. Brian Gionta is a grinder “in tight”, and scores many a goal from being parked near the blue paint. Mathieu Darche has got great net presence too, often sacrificing the body for the potential to score. But it’s time for Andrei Kostitsyn to utilize his size on a regular basis in front of Thomas. His body will be better spent screening shots, than making big hits along the half boards.
Becoming more disciplined (a serious issue for the Habs this season), and Staying Out of The Box is a necessity. Looking back on the teams histories – this is sometimes easier said than done, but the Canadiens need to resist the temptation to retaliate. Boston is great at pulling teams into the physical aggressive game. But that’s a game that can only end in disaster for Montreal. Specifically, Travis Moen, PK Subban, Roman Hamrlik, and Benoit Pouliot have been the worst offenders. That has to come to a screeching halt starting tonight.
There are certain players that have been slumping especially as of late, and they will need to escalate their game for the post season. Montreal will need Michael Cammalleri to find the sweet spot that earned him the prize of top scorer in last years playoffs. There’s no need to detail thoughts on Scott Gomez though. We all (including him) know that he needs to be much better in the post season.
The Habs registered only3 players with 20+ goals this season. A stat that needs to make a U-Turn for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Mind you, the Bruins only posted 4 players in the 20+goal scoring area. But the B’s doubled the number of Canadiens players hitting 40+ points in the regular season – sitting with 10. They are a team with a lot of depth across all 4 forward lines, and Montreal’s defense will have their hands full.
Subban and Hal Gill will see the lions share of that task, and success will be dictated by the likes of blocked shots, accurate clearing, and limited number of turnovers.
I suppose that the main match-up being looked at going into this series, is the head to head play of Carey Price and Tim Thomas. Both keepers had stellar years which show in their numbers. Price went 38-28-6 with 8 SO, a 2.35 GAA and a SV% of .923 while Thomas had a .938 SV%, a NHL record 2.00 GAA supporting his 35-11-9 record, containing 9 SO.
Two of the stingiest goaltenders in the league, and Price will have to maintain that ability throughout the series, to make sure there is a second round to move on to. There is no doubt though; if the team plays well in front of Price, he’ll keep closing the door behind them.
There is one thing that we can be rest assured of, even before the puck drops tonight at center ice of TD Gardens. This is going to be an incredible series! Both teams are highly skilled, both have a great desire to chase the Stanley Cup and bring it home, and both teams have a greater desire to see the demise of their opponent.
There’s also no doubt that it will most likely be the most scrutinized series in the post seasons first round. TSN has already named the Bruins as their choice for Eastern Conference Champs – but keep this in mind …
They also had the Habs finishing 9th overall, and out of a playoff spot when they made their predictions last fall.
I for one, like their record!