By Stu Hackel
There is probably no more bitter rivalry in North American professional sports than the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, whose 85-year antagonism returned to full-scale, blood-boiling warfare this season.
The puck drops tonight on the final chapter of this season's hostilities, the 33rd meeting of these Original Six teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and if it's anything like the six games the teams played during the regular season, this best-of-seven will overflow with great goaltending, good hard hockey, the classic battle of speed and skill vs. size and strength, and, very likely, a few little dust-ups, unkind words and even some blue oaths.
This pairing recalls the legendary battles these teams have fought, like when a bloodied, semi-conscious Rocket Richard was photographed shaking hands with a black-eyed, broken-nosed Sugar Jim Henry in 1952 after Richard's late goal eliminated Boston in Game 7 of the semi-finals. If it happened today, the Rocket would have undergone concussion tests and likely not passed. We wouldn't have one of the sport's greatest photos. (For more classic moments from the Bruins-Habs rivalry, take a look at this SI.com photo gallery.)
The 2010-11 Bruins had the better regular season, finishing atop the Northeast Division seven points ahead of Montreal, but in the six meetings between the two clubs, the Canadiens won four. When they were victorious, they did it by taking advantage of their superior speed and a very good power play while the Bruins put themselves in trouble by taking both necessary and unnecessary penalties, the former because they couldn't keep up with the Habs, the latter through a lack of emotional discipline.
In the two games that Boston won, including the last on March 26, they showed they had more depth than the Canadiens, who have been ravaged by injuries this season, and were able to use their bigger bodies to win puck battles, crash the net and create space to use some substantial skill of their own. They say they now know from that last game what it takes to beat the Canadiens. That, in the minds of many prognosticators, is what gives Boston the edge in the series.
But the very large subtext here is this season's ever-increasing enmity between the clubs. It has even spread to their fans and media (check out today's conversation between Tony Marinaro of Montreal's Team 990 and Gresh and Zo of Boston's Sports Hub 98.5 here) and the contrasting self-images of these passionate franchises, one of which adheres to the game's characteristic swiftness while the other, like a brick wall, aims to stop it dead in its tracks.
Ill will accumulated all season between the clubs, with Boston accusing the Canadiens of diving and cheap shots on B's players, and Montreal reacting to what it perceived as thuggery by the Bruins. It all reached crisis level on March 6 in Montreal during the second period with the Canadiens having just gone up 4-0. Big Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty was slammed by bigger Boston captain Zdeno Chara...
....his head rammed into a poorly padded upright. Pacioretty was concussed and he suffered a fractured neck vertebra. It was, sadly, a signature moment in one of the most competitive seasons the NHL has ever had. The NHL did not suspend Chara, calling it a hockey play gone bad, and earned a fair amount of criticism.
The shock in Montreal was expressed most eloquently by the Canadiens' owner, Geoff Molson, who issued a statement critical of the decision: "We understand and appreciate hockey being a physical sport, but we do not accept any violent behavior that will put the players’ health and safety at risk. On this specific issue, I am asking for the support of the 29 other NHL owners, to address urgently this safety issue. And I am willing to play a leadership role in coordinating this group effort.”
Chara's hit and Molson's statement sent the NHL scrambling the next week to devise a more aggressive plan on player safety and hits to the head. But Molson's words also highlighted a serious cultural clash between these two organizations, which is at the heart of the subtext of their meeting in the first round of the playoffs this year.
Boston embraces its long-standing identity as "the Big Bad Bruins." In fact, a current poll on the website of the B's TV network NESN (which the Bruins partly own with the Red Sox) asks fans what the key is to beating the Canadiens in this series. The overwhelming answer is "Be the Big Bad Bruins."
Nathan Horton, who has been impressive playing on the first line with David Krejci and Milan Lucic, has had seven fights this season for the B's. He had six total in his previous six seasons playing for the Panthers. "When you change your team, you change your family, you change your life," he told François Gagnon of La Presse. "I am a Bruin today and I assume with that all that it implies."
The Bruins' image taps into something primal about the game -- harkening back to the days of the baddest Bruin ever, Eddie Shore, and the old hockey adage coined by one of the Bruins' main antagonists during the Shore era and afterwards: Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe, who said, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice." Even later, during the era of the greatest Bruin of all, Bobby Orr, their fans celebrated the B's toughness and willingness to scrap on their behalf.
The celebrated Boston coach, Don Cherry, who still has an enormous influence on the game for his weekly commentaries on Hockey Night in Canada, has been for three decades a highly visible and audible proponent of "Rock 'em, Sock 'em hockey." (He's made tons of money selling videos bearing that name and his.)
This approach is something that works for Bruins nation, and for the team's ownership (as well as some other NHL clubs'), who promote the physical aspects of hockey as the game's primary attribute.
The opposing view, which Molson expressed, purportedly speaking for his club's fans in his statement, is this: "The Montreal Canadiens is an institution that has played a leadership role in this League and in our community for over 100 years, and you can count on us to continue to do so in the future." The decision not to suspend Chara "was one which shook the faith that we, as a community, have in this sport that we hold in such high regard."
In the city, province and country where hockey is as much a religion as a pastime, people believe their perception of the game is different. They want to foster a culture around the sport that does not romanticize or glorify hockey's violent side. It does not entirely reject it, either, but it wants some clear lines drawn between what is and what is not acceptable behavior on the ice.
Just as Bruins fans will forever identify with the rugged Orr-era club that ended Boston's 39-year Cup drought in 1970, the longest dry spell of its time, there is, among long-time Canadiens followers, some measure of pride in their mid-'70s team that stood up to the excessive goonery that helped the Philadelphia Flyers win two Stanley Cups and drag the sport into disrepute, giving it an image that has not really been shed yet. After sweeping the Flyers in the '76 Cup final, and not being intimidated by Philadelphia's pugilistic style, the Habs won three more Cups in succession -- two over Cherry's "lunch-bucket" Bruins -- and the game began to gravitate away from goonery and more toward speed and skill, culminating in the Oilers dynasty of the '80s.
Of course, the Habs had to beat up the Flyers first, which they did in a pair of little known back-to-back 1975 preseason games, but that was viewed as a necessary evil -- which would also explain Chris Nilan and Montreal's aborted Georges Laraque experiment. And there have been cries all season in Montreal that the Habs needed to get a few tough guys of their own to stand up to Boston.
But GM Pierre Gauthier stuck with this smallish, skillful team, and it will be Montreal's standard-bearer in the little morality play that opens in Boston tonight. His counterpart in Boston, Peter Chiarelli, has built a very deep team that many think is the best Boston club in a while. The Boston media is already saying that if the Bruins don't get into the third round, it could cost coach Claude Julien his job. No pressure there, eh? One hopes for Julien's sake that his team isn't looking past this series, even if the media and fans are.
If the Bruins can keep their physical edge without taking the types of penalties that hurt them against Montreal during the regular season, they'll have a good chance to prevail. If, however, they can't catch the Canadiens and if the Habs' power play gets rolling, the sounds coming from Boston next month will be for Julien to join the lengthening list of newly unemployed NHL coaches.