BOSTON (CBS) — It seemed for quite a long time that this Bruins-Canadiens series may never actually begin. But after what’s been a nine-day wait for Montreal, the puck will drop tonight on this second-round series between the longtime bitter rivals.
And when it does, you can bet the action and pace will be fast, furious and nasty.
Unlike some other sports rivalries (cough, Yankees-Red Sox) where the players on the separate teams are actually pretty friendly with one another, the members of the Bruins and Canadiens aren’t faking it. They really can’t stand each other.
After seemingly every whistle, there’s a scrum, a yap, a scrap or a penalty — and that’s during the regular season. In the postseason? Forget about it.
Emotions are going to be all over the place, as both the TD Garden and Bell Centre won’t even need to pay this month’s electric bills. The energy produced in both buildings will be enough to power the whole continent.
Here’s what to watch for once the series finally gets underway.
The Bruins have broken a trend from recent years by maintaining a lethal power play this year, a unit that operated at 21.7 percent efficiency during the regular season and 37.5 percent in the first round of the playoffs. It’s become one of their biggest weapons (more on that later), but it won’t be very useful if the Bruins lose their cool and end up spending too much time in the box.
After the Bruins’ last meeting with Montreal, a Canadiens win in a shootout, just about every Bruins player spoke in the locker room with the same message: We knew they’re going to try to goad us into taking penalties. We got sucked in.
They did that night, as they were called for six minor penalties. The Canadiens made up for it by committing four penalties in the third period, therefore allowing the Bruins back into the game, but that’s not something that can be counted on.
One way the Bruins could shoot themselves in the foot is by getting suckered into the same business. Typically, it is the Bruins who are initiating the rough stuff and therefore getting under their opponents’ skin, so perhaps that unfamiliarity with being on the other side is what has gotten them in trouble.
But head coach Claude Julien may want to take a page out of Frank “The Tank” Ricard’s school of pregame pump-up speeches:
There is no goaltender on the planet playing as well as Tuukka Rask right now. It’s an extended hot streak, as he finished the month of March with a .943 save percentage and 1.69 goals-against average. He’s somehow bettered those numbers to .961 and 1.16 thus far in the playoffs.
The man is locked in.
However, he’s historically had trouble with the Canadiens. He’s 3-10-3 with a .908 save percentage and 2.63 GAA in his career vs. the Habs, well off his overall career numbers of .928 save percentage and 2.11 GAA.
Rask doesn’t have much of an explanation for the struggles — though he was better this year, posting a .932 save percentage and 1.95 GAA in four games. Yet he’s going to need to be at his normal levels of excellence. Anything less, and the Bruins may find themselves in a much more difficult series than anticipated.
Bonus: Thomas Vanek, Foremost Bruins Killer
If we’re talking career numbers in this story, you can’t do so without mentioning Thomas Vanek. The 30-year-old winger always excelled against the Bruins, and the city of Boston nearly fainted when the Canadiens acquired him at the trade deadline this year.
In his career, Vanek has 30 goals and 32 assists with a plus-22 rating in 55 games against Boston. He may be Montreal’s biggest hope.
P.K. & Brad
Pernell Karl Subban and Bradley Kevin Marchand (P.K. and B.K., if you will) are old pals. They played together in the 2008 World Junior Championships and won a gold together, and maybe if they weren’t both heading in different professional directions — one to Montreal, the other to Boston — they’d still be chummy.
But in their NHL careers, it’s been very clear that they are anything but friends.
The two seem to always be engaged with each other whenever they’re on the ice, and they are the key members of their respective rosters in the department of ticking the other team off.
That’s led to memorable situations, like Subban hitting Marchand with a locomotive running at full speed:
Or like the time when they tried to fight, only to get interrupted by officials. And then they tried to fight again, but again were interrupted by officials, before they finally squared off:
Basically, situations like this are fairly common:
Whichever player manages to serve his purpose the best — and on the flip side, whichever team does the best job ignoring the other team’s pest — could be able to swing the series.
Which brings us to …
Any time the Bruins and Canadiens play, the referees always figure into the final story somehow. Bruins fans cry foul when they perceive flops, dives or embellishments to be working against their team; Canadiens fans cast the Bruins as uncontrollable ruffians who get away with incredible acts of violence.
The reality sits somewhere in the middle, and the refs generally try to do the best they can to prevent line brawls from breaking out every period.
Exactly what calls are made by those officials should go a long way in determining a winner in this series.
The Bruins in particular figure to benefit the most from a discrepancy in power plays, as they own a 90 percent successful penalty kill and a power play that scored at 37.5 percent in the five-game series win over Detroit. The PK ranked second, and the power play was the best of any team during the first round.
Montreal, on the other hand, scored two power-play goals on 13 opportunities in their first-round sweep of the Lightning, good for a 15.4 percent success rate. That’s not far off from their 17.2 percent success rate from the regular season, which had them ranked 19th in the league. Their penalty kill was strong in the regular season — 85.1 percent, fourth in the NHL — but they struggled in limited time shorthanded vs. Tampa Bay, allowing two goals on seven power plays against (71.4 percent).
Clearly, we’re working with teeny tiny sample sizes, but the trends show that if Boston gets more power play opportunities, the series could end up being lopsided in the Bruins’ favor. If it’s the Habs who get the benefit of the whistles more often than not, the ice will at least be leveled, as Boston’s biggest strength may be taken away.
The men in striped shirts, the men who often don’t appear to be doing their jobs very successfully, may well help decide the series. No matter which side you’re on, that’s always an uncertain situation.
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