BROSSARD, Que. – It was a nasty, sometimes even ugly, regular season series between long-time rivals Montreal and Boston, but there are doubts it will be quite so wild when the teams meet once again in the post-season.
There was a fight-filled game Feb. 9 in Boston that the Bruins won 8-6, followed by a Montreal’s 4-1 win at home on March 8 that sparked a national debate on hockey violence when forward Max Pacioretty was sent to hospital with a concussion and a fractured neck vertebra after a hit from hulking Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara.
Their much anticipated final regular-season meeting ended in a 7-0 rout for the Bruins.
And now the clubs will face one another in the first round of playoffs for the third time in four years and for the 33rd time overall. The best-of-seven series begins Thursday night in Boston.
”There’s going to be a lot of scrutiny on the series, but at the end of the day it’ll be like any other series,” Montreal captain Brian Gionta said Monday. ”Guys are intense and they want to win, but I don’t think it’ll be any different.”
Despite the late-season setbacks, Montreal won the season series 4-2. And they are 24-8 all-time in playoff series against the Bruins.
But the general feeling from those outside the Canadiens locker room is that Boston goes in with the psychological advantage of having physically manhandled Montreal, and that the goal will be hitting and intimidation.
Many Canadiens fans are still seething over the Chara hit and the fact that the six-foot-nine Bruins defenceman was not suspended by the NHL. Montreal police said they would investigate the hit to see if criminal charges were warranted, but nothing was done and it is unlikely Chara will be locked in irons when the series shifts to the Bell Centre for Games 3 and 4.
It’s all fuel for some bitter chat room exchanges between rival fans, but the Canadiens say the games will be all business.
”I don’t think we hate anybody,” said forward Travis Moen. ”We realize it’s just a game and those 20 guys want to win and so do we.”
Talk of a blood bath brought a smile to veteran defenceman Brent Sopel, a late-season pickup from Atlanta.
”Obviously these teams have butted heads for years,” he said. ”They’re two Original Six teams and they’ve played each other the most, but I think the media’s going to have more fun with this than anyone else.
”It’s two great hockey teams out there battling for wins. They’re a real good team. They’ve got balance throughout the lineup. For us it’s a matter of focusing on the task at hand, which is Game 1.”
”I don’t know about intimidation,” added forward Michael Cammalleri. ”I personally have never seen it so I don’t expect it to be a factor.
”For us, it’s about executing things properly and playing hockey the right way. That’s going to be the difference between winning and losing.”
The bigger, more physical Bruins will no doubt be crowding the net and laying on the body whenever possible, but they’ll have to be careful not to take too many penalties.
The Canadiens have the NHL’s seventh-best power play. Even in their 8-6 loss, which ended in brawls, they scored four power-play goals.
The smaller Canadiens will try to establish their quick, puck-moving game and not get worn down.
The success they had with that game may have been what tipped Boston to the boiling point late in the season. Montreal had gone 5-1 against Boston last season and looked to be getting inside their heads, particularly their veteran goaltender Tim Thomas who has tended to struggle against the Canadiens.
The Bruins hope to get back to where they were in 2009, when their physical game was too much for Montreal and they swept them in the opening round.
”They’re obviously the favourite and deservedly so,” said Cammalleri. ”They’ve had a tremendous season.
”They’re the No. 3 seed and they have home ice and all those things, so they expect to win and a lot of people expect them to win.”
Montreal hopes to go on another run like last season, when they knocked off top-seeded Washington and Pittsburgh before falling to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference final.
But while last year’s playoff hero Jaroslav Halak was traded to St. Louis, the spotlight will be on goaltender Carey Price this time. Price has had a breakthrough season of 38 wins, but he has struggled in playoffs past, including against Boston.
Price was given Monday off practice for a ”therapy day,” but will be back on the ice Tuesday, coach Jacques Martin said.
Forward Jeff Halpern skated separately with the injured players unlikely to be ready to start the series.
Defencemen Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, both out long term with knee injuries, will not return during the playoffs, while Pacioretty, who has resumed skating, was continuing his concussion protocol and remains out for an undetermined period.