MONTREAL – Win or lose his first round series against the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien has a right to feel vindicated.
The 47-year-old was fired midway through the 2005-06 season by Montreal despite a 19-16-6 record and fired again with one week left in the following season by New Jersey despite taking the Devils to first place in the Atlantic Division.
Now, the Ottawa-area native has taken a Boston team that most predicted to finish near the bottom of the NHL Eastern Conference, and which lost its top centre Patrice Bergeron for the season to a concussion on Oct. 27, into the post-season with a solid 41-29-12 record.
And the first round sets the Bruins against the first NHL team to hire and fire him – Montreal.
“To be honest, there’s not much I feel about it,” Julien said Thursday, hours before Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final. “People say it’s really special – it’s not.
“It’s about coming in here with your team and trying to do the job you’re paid to do. I’m coming in here with the Boston Bruins and I have a job to do. We had to play a team and it happened to be the Montreal Canadiens.”
But there’s nothing routine about going to Montreal for the playoffs, not with the Canadiens dominating the front pages and the newscasts after finishing first in the conference for the first time in 15 years.
On Thursday, Le Journal de Montreal had a cartoon of the Canadiens mascot draping a banner off a bridge that read Bring Us The Stanley Cup on its front page, while the Montreal Gazette ran veteran hockey writer Red Fisher’s column as it’s lead story on Page 1.
So the fans won’t let Julien slip into town unnoticed, although few are wishing him good luck.
“The fans here are that way – they don’t forget,” Julien said with a laugh.”I obviously don’t get the same reception I did when I was here, but they do recognize you. They’re faithful Montreal fans – trust me.”
Julien was reasonably popular in Montreal, and many fans felt for him when he was dumped on Jan. 14, 2006 even though the Canadiens had a winning record.
General manager Bob Gainey stepped in behind the bench to complete the season, but also hired Guy Carbonneau as his assistant, the man it seems he wanted all along when he took over as G.M. in 2003. Carbonneau took over as head coach the following season.
Julien vowed when he was hired that he wouldn’t be gone long and he wasn’t, signing with the Devils five months later.
But even with New Jersey leading the division, G.M. Lou Lamoriello felt the team wasn’t ready for the playoffs and unceremoniously sacked Julien. If that was supposed to rally the Devils, it didn’t. They bowed out in the second round.
Julien was left looking like a guy who couldn’t cut it in the big league, but then the Bruins came calling and he signed on in June.
And now he’s looking like a coach of the year candidate, although he may not be able to beat out Carbonneau, who took his underdog squad to first place in the conference.
Julien’s team was hammered by injuries all season, especially on defence, but managed to keep winning.
Their Achilles heel was Montreal, which won all eight regular season meetings with the Bruins, with Boston earning only one of a possible 16 points.
Now he has to do to the Canadiens what he did to Boston in the opening round in 2004 – upset the heavy favourite.
The Canadiens have been picked by nearly everyone to win the series handily.
“It’s an easy prediction to make because of what’s happened on the ice this year,” Julien said. “We can’t hide behind that fact either.
“We’ve worked hard to get into the playoffs and I don’t think we’re just going to roll over and play dead. We’re coming to play hockey. If we give everything we’ve got, we’ll deal with the consequences.”
There may be help on the way in Bergeron, who has been skating with the team all week and who may be available later in the series.
Bergeron was only 10 games into the season when he was slammed from behind head-first into the end boards by Philadelphia defenceman Randy Jones, suffering a severe and potentially career-ending concussion.
He spent much of the season wearing a neck brace, but started to come around in recent weeks.
This week, he’s been taking progressively more contact during practice and felt fine, although not well enough to start the playoffs.
“He’s still a question mark,” said Julien. “He’s been cleared for contact but he still needs approval from the doctor to get into game situations.
“That’s just another step. We’re not going to force him back into the lineup. If it happens, it’s because he really feels ready to come back and the doctor really feels he’s capable of coming back. That’s where the decision will be made.”
He said Bergeron was not about to jeopardize his career by coming back too soon and risking another injury.
“He looks great, but when you haven’t played for six months, contact and playing in a real game, especially in the playoffs, is a whole different story,” the coach added. “You’ve got to be cautious and smart about the whole thing.”
The Canadiens were heartened to have defenceman Mike Komisarek back from a hip injury after he missed the final seven games of the regular season.
But defenceman Francis Bouillon remains out of the lineup with a sore right ankle and captain Saku Koivu is still recovering from a fractured foot.
“We’ll give Bouillon a few more days,” Carbonneau said. “There’s no fracture or damage, it’s just still too sore.”
For Game 1, the Canadiens opted to sit out rookie Ryan O’Byrne and give veteran Patrice Brisebois a chance to play. Brisebois is the only player left from the last Canadiens Stanley Cup team in 1993.
“We like his experience – it’s not that Ryan didn’t play well,” he said.