By Stu Hackel
You can never tell what might happen in the playoffs and as hockey's great playoff rivalry resumes tonight in Montreal, the Canadiens-Bruins series is a good example. During the regular season, the Habs had trouble winning in Boston, and the B's had trouble winning in Montreal. So naturally this is a series where, so far, the home team has yet to win a game.
What the Canadiens do excel at, however, is winning when after they score the first goal and that's what they did in their two wins in Boston. At the Bell Centre for Game 3, however, the Bruins turned the tables and, in the final seconds of killing an early too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty, struck for a quick goal. If that was contrary to how things had gone in the first two games, so was the cause -- the normally reliable Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik mishandling the puck while trying to break out of his own end and the B's Dennis Seidenberg grabbing it at the blue line and feeding it quickly down into the corner to Patrice Bergeron, who just as quickly picked up a streaking David Krejci who was coming in hard, hitting him with a pass that ended up behind Carey Price only seconds after the penalty expired.
The penalty kill and early goal gave Boston a ton of confidence, something the B's seemed to lack on home ice as the series started, and they became the more aggressive team. They scored again before the period ended. Nathan Horton, pretty much a no-show in the first two games, tallied on a trickling puck at the top of the crease that leaked through Price, who had been very strong in the first two games.
Another confidence-builder was the return of B's captain Zdeno Chara, who missed Game 2 with some sort of illness that caused dehydration. He looked to be back in form, a physical presence who helped stabilize his team and get it back in the series. B's coach Claude Julien, who is often criticized for not shaking up his lineup enough, split Chara from his normal defense partner, Johnny Boychuk, and paired him with Seidenberg. That worked well for everyone.
It goes to show that it often does no good to have expectations about how a playoff series will go based on earlier games. The Bruins reversed the series momentum inside of three minutes in Game 3 and tonight we'll see how each team reacts in the crucial fourth game.
Perhaps the Habs had some unrealistic expectations about how Game 3 might go. They'd had a lackadaisical skate earlier in the day and coach Jacques Martin said later, "I told them this morning that it was a good thing the game wasn't in the morning because we weren't ready."
Price, who also misplayed a puck right to Rich Peverley resulting in a 3-0 Bruins lead early in the second period, agreed with his coach. "They came out playing like a team that was down two games, and we played like a team that was up two games," Price said. "I think it started this morning. Guys were horsing around during the morning skate and weren't ready to play.
"I think we got what we deserved in the first period and after that I felt we came back and played like a focused hockey team like we should," he continued. And the Canadiens did come roaring back with the crowd behind them, outshooting Boston 28-16 in the final two periods and drawing to 3-2. But they could do no more as Bruins goalie Tim Thomas shut them down, despite looking shaky on the two he surrendered.
"He made some big saves," said Julien. "The fact that he was able to do that shows a lot of character. There's no doubt he'd like to have those two goals that went in on him. A goaltender could have just had negative thoughts in his mind and not been sharp at the end. But for him to do what he did meant that he was willing to redeem himself and give us the big saves. He did that. They were huge."
But Thomas, the league's best goalie during the regular season, has not had a great start to the postseason and there was talk he'd be replaced by Tuuka Rask for Game 3. Another player Boston is counting on, winger Milan Lucic, has not distinguished himself in this series yet, either. In fact, Lucic's struggles go back to the final 10 games of the regular season. Martin has been using the pairing of Hal Gill and P.K. Subban against the Lucic-Krejci-Horton line and Subban especially seems to have been able to throw Lucic off his game. That tussle merits continued observation.
So does the respective power plays for each team.Boston's season-long woes are well-known. Even though they won the Tomas Kaberle sweepstakes at the trade deadline, their PP did not improve at all and they are scoreless in 11 man-advantage situations in this series. The Canadiens, however, have a feared power play, but are only 1 for 12 and haven't always looked very good with the extra skater. Credit some good up-ice pressure by the Bruins for making it harder for the Habs to use the extra space to show off their skill and speed.
The Bruins spent the time between Game 3 and 4 in Lake Placid, NY, away from the distractions of Montreal. The Habs had to deal with the intense scrutiny of the local media who dissect every word and their vocal fan base who chew it over on the call-in shows in both languages.
There will be some lineup changes tonight. The Habs will likely use veteran Jeff Halpern in place of Benoit Pouliot, who was roundly criticized for undisciplined play and lack of production. Halpern is coming off an injury suffered late in the regular season and he'll add some stability and smarts to his side.
There was some concern in Bruins camp that Chris Kelly might miss the game, but reports say he 's good to go. He suffered a facial injury in Game 3 and will wear a cage, but will be on Boston's third line as usual with wingers Peverley and Michael Ryder.
One of the things that has held true from the regular season is these teams do well when scoring first, not so well when they trail after the first period. The Canadiens and Bruins were tied alongside seven other teams for the fewest wins (4) when trailing after the first period. Given those stats, you can bet both teams will want a good start tonight. It's no time for horsing around.