BROSSARD, Que. – The Montreal Canadiens insist the sweetest way to avenge sidelined teammate Max Pacioretty is to snatch the Northeast Division title from the Boston Bruins.
And Thursday offers a golden opportunity for Montreal to narrow the gap against their hated rivals.
It will also be the much-anticipated first tilt between the clubs since Bruins captain Zdeno Chara slammed Pacioretty in a violent hit that shook the hockey world.
“If you ask Patch, the biggest thing right now is for us to win,” Canadiens forward Ryan White said of his injured teammate Wednesday after practice. “We’ve given ourselves an opportunity to catch these guys and tomorrow’s a big four-point night.”
The Canadiens (40-27-7) trail Boston (40-22-10) by three points in the race for the division lead, with the Bruins holding two games in hand.
White admits Pacioretty, who suffered a severe concussion and fractured vertebra from the Chara hit, will be on the players’ minds.
But that doesn’t mean they’re planning to do anything “stupid” to exact revenge, he added.
Still, if knuckles start flying, White insisted Montreal will be ready.
“We’re going to be jacked up,” said White, one of the Canadiens’ tougher players and a guy who’s shown that he’s willing to throw his fists. “I know what I have to do to help this team win.”
On March 8, Chara drove Pacioretty’s head into the stanchion that holds up the glass separating the player’s benches at the Bell Centre.
The home crowd fell silent as the 22-year-old winger lay motionless on the ice after the collision.
Many hockey fans have said they were almost certain Pacioretty was dead after watching his limp body flop onto the ice.
Doctors have since told a recovering Pacioretty, who was having a breakout season, that he might be able to return for the NHL playoffs.
Chara, meanwhile, was given a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct. The NHL did not impose any additional discipline, calling the hit a “hockey play.”
The incident poured gasoline on an already fiery debate on how to deal with hits to the head in the NHL.
And the league has faced widespread pressure to cut down on violence in the game, including stern remarks from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Chara hit has also injected even more hatred into the long-running rivalry, which saw the Bruins win 8-6 in a brawl-filled game Feb. 9—the last time the clubs met in Boston.
“When you have a real rivalry you’ll get incidents like (the ones) that have happened this year,” said Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin, adding there’s more on the line than winning one for Pacioretty.
“I think there’s already a lot of motivation when you play the Bruins. It’s a must-win for us in order to able to catch them.”
Martin said the hobbled Canadiens, who are 4-1 against the Bruins this season, might have to hit the ice Thursday without key players.
Injured forwards Tomas Plekanec, Jeff Halpern, Mathieu Darche and defenceman Brent Sopel skated during Wednesday’s practice. But the coach said they would all be game-time decisions.
Goaltender Carey Price was given the day off and is expected to start Thursday.
Defenceman Alexandre Picard left Wednesday’s training session early after taking a hard shot from Benoit Pouliot off the side of the leg. But Martin could not immediately update his condition after practice.
Montreal, which has a 3-4 record since the last time the team faced the Bruins, is coming off a 2-0 loss Tuesday to Buffalo.
Boston, which beat New Jersey 4-1 at home Tuesday, has gone 2-2-2 since playing the Habs last.
The Bruins have 10 games left in the regular season, seven of which will be at home. The Habs have eight games remaining, with five of those on the road.
Montreal’s P.K. Subban compared the intensity of the regular season’s final stretch to playoff hockey.
But when asked if he thought things might get out of hand Thursday, he didn’t offer a prediction.
“I don’t know—it’s hockey,” Subban said.
He did, however, expect the raucous Bruins fans to shower jeers down on the Canadiens.
“As long as we come out with the two points, that’s all I care about—they can boo from here until Timbuktu,” Subban said. “It’s going to be fun—it’s always fun.
“These are the games that you want to (play).”