By Stu Hackel
Fasten your seatbelts: The NHL's greatest, most passionate rivalry resumes tonight when the Canadiens visit the Bruins for their first encounter this season (NHL Network in the U.S., 7 pm) and they play again on Saturday in Montreal. The six regular-season and seven playoff games these two played were some of the most exciting -- and nasty -- of the 2010-11 campaign and there's no reason to believe they won't continue in that vein.
The fuel for this combustible mix comes as much from the fans as the players. Both Bostonians and Montrealers know this is the first time in 39 years that the Bruins will take on the Habs as defending Stanley Cup champions -- and it took a Game 7 overtime win by Boston to get past Montreal in the opening round last spring. By contrast, the Canadiens were champs seven times between Boston's two most recent Cups, and in four of those seasons, they dispatched the Bruins along the way, twice in the final round.
Adding to the current subtext of this home-and-home series is the fact that both teams have played below their abilities in the early going. The Canadiens, who finally won their first home game of the season on Wednesday night, have gotten much attention because they've stumbled in historic fashion (as we wrote about on Monday) and the loud sirens from Habs fans pressing their panic buttons have drowned out the angst in Beantown. The Bruins' start is hardly better. In fact, the teams go into Thursday's game tied for 12th in the Eastern Conference with six points apiece.
B's coach Claude Julien detected an absence of engagement before his team's Columbus Day game against Colorado. “Sometimes you can feel the looseness in the dressing room,” he told reporters, including SI.com's Adrian Dater, following Boston's 1-0 loss. “This is starting my fifth year, and you kind of learn to read your team better all the time. And tonight I came in and I told my coaches and I even brought that to their attention before the game. I said, ‘You know what, we seem a little loose in here. We might want to focus a little bit better because we’re going to be surprised if we’re not.’”
Those first symptoms of a Stanley Cup hangover have now taken hold more forcefully and the Bruins' offense is sputtering. They've tallied only 19 times in their eight games and their 2.25 goals per game average ranks 20th in the league. Meanwhile, they've surrendered the first goal in six consecutive outings.
GM Peter Chiarelli seems a bit miffed at his team, but isn’t sure what to do about it. “This is a first-time thing for a lot of guys, myself included,’’ he told Nancy Marrapese-Burrell of The Boston Globe this week. “I haven’t minded our level of compete; I think it can be better. To me, the common denominator in all this is two things. We’ve had more offensive chances and better quality chances in this first part than we did last year, and we’re not scoring. So that, to me, is a foundation of getting things back, too. When you’re scoring early, you set the tone.
“The second thing is just getting the proper mind frame again. I don’t know how to do that. I think it may be more of a natural process and we’re working on it. This is new to us and I don’t want to overreact. Unfortunately we have to do it game by game for now.
“I’ve talked to GMs, coaches, and players who have been through this," he continued. “These guys have different stories but they all say there is something that happens that you can’t avoid. ‘Malaise’ is too strong a word, but it’s just a bit of a cloud right now. One team said it was 20 games before it was back to normal. There’s no easy answer. We’ve just got to deal with it….At some point, if I don’t like the way things are going, I’ll have to do something.’’
While some in Boston hope the visit from the hated Canadiens will cure the hangover, Julien downplays that as a factor. “Montreal is a great rivalry,” he said on Thursday. “But for me, it doesn’t matter who comes in. We just have to understand that we have to get ourselves winning on a more consistent basis and it’s as simple as that. It’s more about looking at ourselves than looking at the opponent. I know it sounds cliché, but that’s what it is. For us, whoever we play, we have to have that sense of urgency that will allow us to get ourselves back on track and back to the team everyone thinks we should be.”
Julien's personnel haven’t dramatically changed since the Cup was won last June. Tomas Kaberle and Michael Ryder left as free agents and Mark Recchi retired. To replace them, Tyler Seguin has gotten more work, Chiarelli traded for Joe Corvo and signed former Hab Benoit Pouliot. The results have been mixed: Seguin leads the B’s with 3 goals, 6 assists and a plus-7, Corvo has 3 assists but is minus-4. Pouliot is scoreless in seven games and is minus-2.
Other Bruins have similarly had inconsistent starts. Milan Lucic — who was largely invisible in the first six games — broke out last Thursday with a goal and two assists against Toronto, followed by this rapid-fire goal and assist Saturday against the Sharks.
Lucic's usual center, David Krejci, has been slowed by injury and is a team-worst minus-5. Julien shook up his lines in practice this week and moved Lucic away from Krejci to skate with Seguin and center Chris Kelly. Krejci centered Nathan Horton and Pouliot.
Of course, everything starts in goal for the Bruins and Tim Thomas isn't too far off his amazing play from last season with a 2.15 GAA and .926 save percentage. But Chiarelli expressed some surprise that Julien hasn't used backup Tuukka Rask more than the two games he's played, probably hoping to keep the 36-year-old Thomas fresher for the heavier schedule as the season moves on. So perhaps Rask will start one of this weekend's games.
The Canadiens didn't get their Bell Centre first win without a shakeup of their own. GM Peirre Gauther fired assistant coach Perry Pearn shortly before the game, a highly unusual move the he explained to the media in a manner that was both vague and specific.
"Gauthier’s rationale for the move was unenlightening corporate bafflegab that had reporters scratching their heads and wondering whether they’d just heard about a coach sacking or the launch of a new deodorant," wrote Mike Boone on The Montreal Gazette's Hockey Inside/Out blog. What Boone articulated that Gauther could not was that Pearn, who ran the defensemen on the bench, was replaced by Randy Ladouceur, a former NHL defenseman himself. "They responded with probably the best zone play we’ve seen from the Canadiens this season," Boone wrote.
Pearn had also been in charge of the Habs' struggling special teams and had been a long-time lieutenant of head coach Jacques Martin both in Montreal and Ottawa. Some interpreted the firing as scapegoating for a poor start by a team that Gauthier assembled, others took it as a veiled threat to Jacques Martin along the same lines that former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner used to do when he'd fire Billy Martin's pitching coach whenever their ballclub fell short of expectations.
Whatever the explanation, the Canadiens played very well after a poor first period against the Flyers on Wednesday night that saw them fall behind 1-0 on Jaromir Jagr's third goal of the season, helped along by the Canadiens, especially Travis Moen, chasing the puck and running around in the defensive zone.
Montreal began crashing the net the way opponents had done to them much of this season. The Flyers seemed lost as the game went on, and without Chris Pronger in their lineup, Philadelphia looked disorganized, small and outclassed -- strange from a club that previously looked so dominant. One player usually doesn't make that much difference on a hockey team, but Pronger is their backbone. It was obvious during the Bruins' sweep of the Flyers last spring (in which an injured Pronger missed three games), and it should have been on Wednesday night as well.
The main beneficiary of the Flyers' chaos was Max Pacioretty. He scored twice from right in front, once late in the second...
...and again early in the third.
That those came from an area where Montreal has had little success so far was surpassed by the surprise that Pacioretty was even in the lineup. An injury to his wrist on Monday in the loss to Florida nearly assured that he'd be scratched for at least a few games. Somehow he practiced with the team Thursday morning and was a force coming off the wing during the game. It seems he's got pretty good recuperative powers.
Pacioretty, of course, was the victim of last season's most vicious hit, when the Bruins' Zdeno Chara rammed him into a metal stanchion near the Canadiens' bench, concussing him and fracturing a vertebra. Chara somehow escaped suspension and that incident helped ignite the NHL's burning concern with safety.
It will be Pacioretty's first meeting with the Bruins since that game in March. This rivalry never seems devoid of compelling subplots.