BROSSARD, Que. – The Montreal Canadiens hope the past is on their side but aren’t counting on history books to beat the heavily favoured Boston Bruins.
The Canadiens and Bruins face off in Game 1 of their best-of-seven NHL Eastern Conference playoff series Thursday night (8 p.m. ET) at TD Banknorth Garden.
It marks the 32nd time the two teams will play one another in the postseason – the most of any two NHL clubs. Montreal holds a whopping 24-7 edge, including wins in the last three.
But the Bruins finished first in the east, 23 points ahead of Montreal, against whom they went 5-0-1 this season. Most pundits predict a quick Boston victory.
“You can’t be good without good opponents,” Montreal coach and GM Bob Gainey said Wednesday. “You can’t be tested without good competition and Montreal and Boston have provided that for each other on many nights, in many series, over a long period of time.
“This is the spring of 2009 and we have players on our team that were on their team last year (Glen Metropolit) and they have players on their team that were on our team last year (Michael Ryder), so history is written and it’s there, but this chapter is about to be written by the players and participants who are here today.”
As recently as 2004, the Bruins finished first in the conference only to be upset in seven games by the Canadiens. Boston was also the favourite in 2002, but Montreal won in six.
Last season, Montreal was first in the conference and won all eight regular-season meetings with the Bruins, including beatings of 8-2 and 6-1. But the Canadiens needed seven tough games to oust them before losing to Philadelphia in the second round.
“You can look in the past and try to take the positive memories from those series, but really, it doesn’t matter,” said Canadiens captain Saku Koivu. “There’s no advantage on our side if we’ve beaten them before.
“Their team finished first in the east. They had a great, consistent season. Yeah, we’ve done it before, but the teams are very different on both sides and I don’t think it matters at this point.”
The Bruins point to their series against Montreal last spring as a turning point in their rise to the top of the conference. Montreal had beaten them 13 straight games over two seasons going into the series before Boston took Game 3.
“It was a bit of a carry-over,” bruising Bruin winger Milan Lucic recalled this week. “Ultimately, it put a good feeling into the room and the organization.
“We felt we were taking steps in the right direction.”
The task is more daunting for the Canadiens because they are to start the series without their best defenceman, Andrei Markov, who missed the last four games of the regular season after being checked into the boards by Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski. The Canadiens then went 0-3-1 without him.
The Canadiens have given no indication of what Markov’s injury is or how long he will be out. But he was not at any of the team’s three skates this week at their suburban practice rink.
Gainey confirmed that veteran defenceman Patrice Brisebois would play the series opener and rookie Yannick Weber would sit out, likely along with forward Greg Stewart and defenceman Ryan O’Byrne.
“I’ll do my best to have a good game and try to help the team,” said Brisebois. “We need a good game to show them it’s going to be difficult.
“It will be difficult for us too, but we also need to show it will be difficult for them.”
Brisebois will likely move on to the power play, where there are big shoes to fill in Markov’s spot on the left point.
The power play only began to click when the Canadiens picked up veteran Mathieu Schneider for the right point before the trade deadline.
It also helped that Gainey finally found a top line that works in the final 10 games of the season, placing wingers Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay with Koivu. In that span, Kovalev had nine goals and eight assists, Koivu had three goals and eight assists and Tanguay had four goals and six assists.
“We have three players that can read off one another and we’ve been able to cycle the puck well,” said Koivu. “The power play has also been effective.
“Sometimes you can’t explain why things happen, but we got a good start from the first game they put us together. We got some goals and some confidence.”
With Boston holding last line change at home, the Canadiens will likely see a lot of Boston’s top defence pair of Norris Trophy favourite Zdeno Chara and Aaron Ward.
Gainey said the team looks to that line for leadership on attack, but cautioned that it will need help.
“Yes, they will be extremely important, but they’re not flying alone,” he said.. “They need the other players so they will not be the only place we go when we need help.”
Of Late, the so-called third line of Maxim Lapierre with Guillaume Latendresse and Tom Kostopoulos has also been producing. But Gainey has hinted more than once this week that he wants to second trio of Tomas Plekanec with Andrei Kostitsyn and rookie Matt D’Agostini to start to contribute.
Plekanec ended the season with one assist in 13 games and Kostitsyn has not scored since March 8.
To counter Boston’s size and physical approach, enforcer Georges Laraque will play on the fourth line with Metropolit and Chris Higgins.
Another key is the place of second-year goalie Carey Price, who has had an up-and-down sophomore season even though he looked to be improving in his last few games.
On the other side is Tim Thomas, who had the best goals-against average and save percentage in the NHL season. But he has had trouble beating the Canadiens in the past.
The Canadiens are also playing for pride.
This is the 24-time Stanley Cup champions’ 100th anniversary season and there were huge expectations from their fans after finishing first in the conference last season. But this campaign has been marked by injuries and underachievement as a second-half slide saw them make the playoffs by a nose over Florida.
“All of us are getting a second chance to make it a great season,” said Koivu. “You have a strong playoffs and you get things going, no one will remember what happened in the regular season.”