MONTREAL – It is springtime, and the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens will meet again in the NHL playoffs.
The two so-called Original Six clubs will face off for the 32nd time, and the fourth time in this decade, in the opening round of Eastern Conference playoffs this week. All-time, the Canadiens are 24-7 in playoff series against Boston and have won the last three – in 2002, 2004 and 2008.
The Bruins clinched first place in the conference last week, while the Canadiens lost their season finale 3-1 at home to Pittsburgh on Saturday to finish eighth at 41-30-11 for 93 points.
It is the opposite of a year ago, when Montreal won the conference and Boston was eighth. The Canadiens struggled to a seven-game win in the opening round of the post-season before losing in five games to Philadelphia in the semifinals.
“It’ll be a very exciting challenge for our team,” said Montreal goaltender Carey Price. “They’re one of the premier teams in the league this year.
“But all year we felt we can play with them.”
Actually, after winning all eight regular season games against the Bruins last season, the Canadiens struggled this time around.
Their 1-3-2 record against Boston doesn’t look bad, but their only win was in a shootout in their first meeting of the season on Oct 15. From the other perspective, the Bruins’ record against Montreal was 5-0-1, taking 11 of 12 points available.
But the Bruins have been heavily favoured before and still lost to their nemesis Montreal in the playoffs. In 2002 and 2004, the Bruins had more than 100 points and finished well ahead of the Canadiens, only to lose to them in the first round.
The rivalry this time has a personal element.
Claude Julien, fired by Montreal in 2006, now coaches the Bruins and the man who gave him the axe, general manager Bob Gainey, is now behind the Canadiens bench after firing Guy Carbonneau on March 9.
Two players have switched teams from a year ago, with former Canadiens winger Michael Ryder joining the Bruins as a free agent last summer and ex-Bruin Glen Metropolit going to Montreal off waivers from Atlanta on Feb. 27.
“It always hurts when you lose Game 7, but you have to take it game by game,” said Metropolit. “It’s going to be a long one, probably.
“We have to compete hard because we know they’ll be coming. You want to get the pucks in on their defence. (Zdeno) Chara’s a big guy, and you want to wear him down the best you can. You soft-chip it and try to get a good forecheck and get them moving. He logs a lot of minutes.”
The teams’ last meeting in Boston was a wild one last week, with the Canadiens overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the second period only to have the Bruins tie it in the third and win 5-4 in overtime.
But the Bruins’ attempt to intimidate the Canadiens backfired, as Montreal didn’t react when Chara, Milan Lucic and others started throwing punches, and then burned Boston with three power-play goals on the resulting penalties.
Many wondered why Gainey didn’t dress enforcer Georges Laraque for the game, but if it was a test of character for his other players, they passed.
They’ll need it in the playoffs against a team that holds a massive edge from a statistical point of view.
The Bruins scored 268 goals to only 249 for Montreal, and allowed a league-low 194 to the Canadiens’ 247.
Boston goalie Tim Thomas led the league with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage, and has a veteran backup in Manny Fernandez. Price struggled through most of the season, although he has looked sharper of late. His back-up Jaroslav Halak is even less experienced than the second-year Price.
Boston had seven players with 20 or more goals – Phil Kessel (33), Ryder (26), Marc Savard (24), Mark Recchi (23), David Krejci (22), Blake Wheeler (21) and Chuck Kobasew (20), while Chara had 19. Montreal had three – Alex Kovalev (26), Andrei Kostitsyn (23) and Tomas Plekanec (20), but Kostitsyn hasn’t scored since March 8 while Plekanec has one assist since March 14.
Both teams were top-10 in the league on the power play, with Montreal getting a late surge from the acquisition of point man Mathieu Schneider, and both were just above average in penalty killing.
A concern for Montreal is the health of defence anchor Andrei Markov, who missed the last four games of the season after being hit into the boards by Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski.
Without him, the Canadiens went 0-3-1, with that hard-earned point in Boston decisive in taking the final playoff spot over Florida, which also finished with 93 points.
The club has been secretive about Markov’s injury, although there are rumblings that he may return for the start of the playoffs after it was first feared he would be out at least three weeks.
Montreal is also missing defenceman Francis Bouillon with a torn groin and centre Robert Lang, who severed his achilles tendon in early February and is not expected back before the second round.
Boston has been missing winger Marco Sturm since early in the season.