Montreal linemates Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, who developed a sharp chemistry when they were teammates for the New Jersey Devils, showed off that chemistry Thursday night, combining for both goals and leading the Canadiens to a 2-0 victory over the Bruins in Boston.
This highly anticipated resumption of the NHL's most legendary playoff rivalry, seen as a showdown between the Canadiens' speedy skill and the Bruins' smashmouth aggressiveness, proved to be an intriguing game on many levels -- not the least of which was the battle of elite goalies. It was young Carey Price who stopped 31 shots for the shutout, winning the duel against Boston's Tim Thomas, the 36-year-old netminder who recently set a new mark for save percentage (.938) during the regular season.
"If we were able to write down on paper how we would have wanted to start the series this would have been it," Price said.
Gionta and Gomez struck both early and late in the game, getting the game winner inside three minutes of the first period and securing the result with a bit less than three minutes remaining.
"You know in the playoffs, your best players have to elevate their game, and I thought that our top players, Gionta and Gomez, elevated their game tonight," said Canadiens coach Jacques Martin.
Getting the first goal has been important for Montreal all season, as the low-scoring Habs won 32 games in which they tallied first, tied for the fifth-best mark in the league. By contrast, they only won 12 games wihen surrendering the first goal, tied for 15th. They took advantage of some ragged play by B's defenseman Tomas Kaberle and Mark Recchi to take the lead.
Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill advanced the puck to Gomez in the neutral zone. Gomez, who was being watched by Recchi, shot it deep into Boston's end where Kaberle picked it up. Both Gionta and Matthew Darche of the Habs chased it and Kaberle had Gionta on his tail. As Kaberle circled the net, he decided to reverse the puck behind him along the boards, past Gionta and back in the direction where it came from. But it was Gomez waiting there for it half way in the zone not Recchi, who had stayed high near the blue line.
Kaberle had come around the net and started out of the zone, but Gionta stayed deep, shedding the Bruins who should have covered him. Unchecked, Gomez had lots of time to make a play. Darche, too, had streaked right to the goal mouth, and Gomez rifled a pass goalward which Darche swiped at a missed, but Gionta didn't. He fired it into the open side before Thomas could get over and the Canadiens had all the scoring they'd need with 57 minutes left to play.
"I didn't know there was a guy at the back door," Thomas said. "I was playing the guy in front and it looked like he was the one that was going to pick it off, and by the time I realized that it got through him and over to Gionta he made a quick shot. If he holds it a half second more I can get over there."
"That's what they're known for," Bruins coach Claude Julien said."They like to get the early lead, And once they get the early lead they like to sit back and definitely try to make things hard for you and they try and make you run out of patience and frustrate you."
The goal threw the Bruins off balance in front of their home crowd. During their power plays, the best scoring chances were by the penalty killing Canadiens, and especially Tomas Plekanec. Boston had trouble establishing a forecheck with the extra man or at even strength for long stretches of the game. They'd try to get pucks behind the Canadiens' defense, but often the Habs would beat them to it and turn the play the other way with quick, short passes in their own zone, eventually carrying it to safety.
About all the Boston fans had to cheer in the early going were a few chances by Brad Marchand and the periodic pushing matches that took place at stoppages, but the game never broke out into the sort of open warfare that marked much of the regular season encounters these teams played.
Marchand's best chance, coming in the later stages of the first, started with he and Patrice Bergeron outbattling Gill and Gomez for the puck deep in Montreal's zone. Marchand got it back to Dennis Seidenberg who passed it cross ice along the blue line to Kaberle. Marchand got to the net and Kaberle threw the puck down low where he was waiting for a back door redirection. But he steered it away from the net, and it hit the boards instead of the twine.
Marchand also broke in alone a couple of times during the game, but Price stood his ground both times and made the stops look rather easy.
Boston got life in the second period, however, firing 18 shots at Price, as they grew a bit more effective in winning puck battles along the boards and forced the Habs into some icing calls. The most active Boston shooter was Zdeno Chara, who was credited with five shots and had another five blocked. In one stretch late in the second, the 6-foot-9 captain was set up four times for his howitzer shot within a minute. But nothing was going in for him or his teammates on this night.
Shortly after that, Boston had their most sustained pressure of the evening, and it began to look not unlike the playoff games Montreal won last spring, when they were widely outplayed first by Washington, then Pittsburgh, but won both series thanks to work of goalie Jaroslav Halak. On Thursday, Price proved he was capable of reproducing -- and maybe even improving on -- Halak's heroics. His bigger frame and more efficient movements allowed him to easily stay square to the shooter while his defense corps did an excellent job of getting inside position on the B's forwards. When the Canadiens defense weren't blocking Boston shots (and both James Wisniewski and Brent Sopel had four each), they allowed Price a clear view of almost every shot and he repeatedly smothered the puck and prevented the Bruins from getting very many rebounds.
"I don't think we did a very good job of taking away his vision. He saw a lot of shots tonight," Julien said of Price. "He saw a lot of pucks. We definitely have to get better in that area if we plan on scoring some goals."
It was something of a mystery why the Bruins didn't get more traffic in front of Price, although with Chara launching rockets from 40 feet away, not too many NHLers want to stand that close to the net.
The Bruins top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton, who dismantled the Habs in their last regular season meeting, were not much of a factor. Horton had three shots, Lucic had one. B's Coach Claude Julien did a good job getting them on the ice against the line he wanted them to skate against, centered by rookie Lars Eller (who came over to Montreal last summer in the deal than sent Halak to St. Louis) with Tom Pyatt and Travis Moen on the wings. But the Habs trio played very effectively against the Krejci line, as did defensemen Gill and P.K. Subban, who Martin deployed against them.
As the clock ran down, with the Krejci line on the ice, Martin again was able to get the Gomez line out halfway through the shift. As Lucic tried to carry the puck out of his zone, Gomez stripped it from him and dropped it to Gionta who was speeding up behind him. The Canadiens captain took a few strides and ripped a slap shot from a sharp angle that squeaked through Thomas' arm and side and came to rest inside the net to seal the deal.
Shortly after, an obviously frustrated Chara, checked Plekanec then held him on the ice for an extended period, earning a minor penalty with just over two minutes remaining that squashed any hope of a Boston comeback.
For Price, who last year was the target of the Montreal boo birds, it was his third career playoff whitewash, all three coming against Boston. For Gomez, this year's boo-bird target at the Bell Centre, it was a night of redemption after a poor season in which he once again earned more than $7 million but couldn't manage to hit the 40-point plateau in 80 games. And for the Canadiens, it was the win they needed to come back to Montreal with at least a split on enemy ice in the first two games.