By Brian Cazeneuve
Like the team he plays for, Danny Briere’s postseason record is hidden in plain sight. With his goal and assist in Montreal’s series-clinching 3-1 victory over the Boston Bruins in Game 7, he now has 115 points in 118 playoff games, all in a career with mostly ordinary teams in Phoenix, Buffalo, Philadelphia and now Montreal. That’s more than Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Of course, those two players are a bit too young to compare with the 16-year veteran who has also exceeded the career postseason outputs of such NHL luminaries as Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson, Teemu Selanne and Joe Thornton.
Briere has outscored Hall of Famers Peter Stastny, John Bucyk, Steve Shutt and Bill Barber. None of Briere’s teams have been especially imposing, but neither is he. Generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 179 pounds, his measurements have probably been boosted by the U.S.-Canada exchange rate. But the diminutive center is a perfect fit for these Canadiens, whose captain, Brian Gionta, is three inches shorter but also plays a much bigger game. Snazzy forward David Desharnais is also 5'-7". The Habs as a whole may have been sold short by hockey pundits this season, but nobody is underestimating them now.
If the long history between these Montreal and Boston is sprinkled with cultural scuffles and morality plays, the simple story of this series could be about expectation. With these two clubs, which have met 34 times in the playoffs, their backstory seems to mean more than any regular-season pattern. So often, the Canadiens have been the voice of doubt inside the Bruins’ heads, especially when Montreal beat Boston 18 times in a row during the Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau years. It remained a ghostly influence even this season, when the Bruins' slump was long gone yet the assumption remained that they were playing to back up their Presidents’ Trophy status with another run to a championship while the Canadiens were playing for a chance to put a bow on their own season by beating their archrivals. Many prognosticators didn’t much care for Montreal’s chances against Tampa Bay in the first round. After all, the Lightning had accumulated 101 points during the regular season and then welcomed Steven Stamkos back into the lineup after a long absence caused by his broken leg. Les Canadiens? Sacré bleu. Not this year, mon ami.
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By way of contrast, the Bruins were the big boys. They hit, they scored, they used four lines and then they willed teams into submission by not having apparent weaknesses. Patrice Bergeron could win face-offs with great consistency and Torey Krug could join rushes and finish plays with flash, but when that didn’t work, Brad Marchand could carve his stick into opponents' midsections and Milan Lucic could dish out more punishment. The Bruins were the stereo you asked your neighbor to turn down. Now, their plug has been pulled for the season.
Throughout the playoffs, the Canadiens have managed to get more out of less than any other team that has been chasing the Cup. The Bruins outshot them in Game 7 by 30-18, but even though Montreal was facing a much bigger team playing in its own raucous barn, the hits were even, at 35 apiece. And the Habs did what good Canadiens teams often do on the road: take the crowd out of the game by scoring quickly. While Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk battled in the corner with Montreal's Brandon Prust, Boychuk’s defense partner, Matt Bartkowski, was caught watching the biscuit instead of his man. His lapse enabled Briere to grab the loose puck and find Dale Weise, who drove home the opening tally. At the 2:18 mark, Montreal was ahead 1-0. In none of their four losses in this series did the Bruins score a goal in a first period. Montreal had the lead roughly 80 percent of the time and never trailed in any of its four victories. Boston was always chasing. And so it was on this night as the Canadiens extended their lead to 2-0 on Max Pacioretty's goal at 10:22 of the second period.
The Canadiens’ ability to grab the lead from the get-go often forced Boston to press. How many shots did the Bruins fire wide in this series? How many times did they hit the goalposts? When Jarome Iginla dinged a backhand rebound off the iron with a chance to tie the game in the second period, Boston wasn’t doomed just yet, but the signs were there. For the game, Montreal enjoyed a 10-4 edge in takeaways while Boston committed more giveaways, 16-7. Those are astounding numbers for a Bruins team that hasn't been prone to making a lot of mistakes. The Canadiens deserve some credit for causing them. Montreal outskated the Bruins and made them look tired, even though neither team had a long or difficult first-round series.
The Bruins will need to ask themselves some questions during the offseason. GM Peter Chiarelli isn’t one to stand still, but this team doesn’t seem to be severely lacking in one particular area. Captain Zdeno Chara turned 37 in March, and even though he generally played well in these playoffs, he turned the puck over and got twisted around often in Game 7, as he did at the end of Boston’s final series against Chicago last year. He can still be a force, but his returns are sure to diminish a bit more next year. Still, the Bruins will have Dennis Seidenberg back from injury and a trio of young backliners: Krug, Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton, something to look forward to in the coming seasons. Chiarelli smartly locked up Rask and Bergeron with long-term deals last summer.
Now the question is just what happened to David Krejci and Marchand, two of the Bruins’ key point-grabbers during the season, who combined for no goals in 24 playoff games this year. Either one could have been playing through a hidden injury, so there may be valid answers for their poor production. That’s an internal question. Maybe the Bruins did have to move Tyler Seguin during the offseason last year because of his poor work habits and off-ice shenanigans, but a team that had trouble finishing during this series could really have used him. Either way, if Boston does need to look at offseason upgrades, it might be a matter of seeking guys who can fill up the score sheet. Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien have built a team of so-called character players. The trick now is to find a man or two who can fill both roles, but Boston is not a team in need of a severe overhaul.
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The Bruins could not have asked for a worse foe to play in a second-round series. The Canadiens’ power play, 19th-best during the regular season at 17.2 percent, is now up to 26.3, and much of the credit for that goes to defenseman P.K. Subban, who had the Bruins scrambling to keep up with him as he gave them different looks from different parts of the ice and drove them to distraction. The New York Rangers don’t have defensemen who are nearly as aggressive as Boston'a, but they force teams to make extra passes, something the Habs are willing to do. For hockey purists, the subplot of Montreal’s power play against New York’s penalty kill should be fun. It will be harder for Subban to get into the Rangers’ heads because he doesn’t have as much history of battles with their players or their fan base as he does with Boston's. Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist is playing at his peak, but Habs goalie Carey Price outdueled him at the Olympics last February.
Even with home ice advantage in the conference finals, the Canadiens certainly won’t be sneaking up on New York. If Montreal managed to jar the psyches of Krejci and Marchand, now they can mess with Rick Nash and Derek Stepan, two Ranger snipers who are also struggling. These Canadiens have a way of finding weaknesses in others while summoning their own surprising strengths when it matters most.
The Canadiens will host the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET (NBC, CBC, RDS).