The series between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins continues to orbit around P.K. Subban, the Habs defenseman who seems to be in the middle of everything. On Tuesday night, he was superb, ornery, flashy, smart and opportunistic as his team bolted to an early lead and withstood a furious Boston rally in the Canadiens' 4-2 win that gave them a 2-1 series lead.
The Bruins can take heart from the way they played in the second half of the game, hemming the Habs in their own zone for much of the final 30 minutes, but the Canadiens have also found a way to make Boston's young defenders pay for pinching in by employing long stretch passes that punish such aggressive play.
Here are some observations from Game 3:
• It was all P.K. all the time for Montreal. Subban began the game by hitting Brad Marchand during his very first shift and sent a stretch pass up the left side of the ice to Rene Bourque, who fired the opening shot on Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who faced 26 on the night. Subban also made a super play on Montreal’s first goal at 10:57 of the first period, skating into the right side of the offensive zone and moving to the half-wall before dishing a subtle touch pass to Tomas Vanek instead of firing a shot. The pass allowed Vanek ample room to make a play from the right point as the Bruins had collapsed on Subban, who took a hit along the wall from Milan Lucic. Vanek then wound up for a shot, which was more of a pass to the side of the net to Tomas Plekanec, who made an easy conversion into a wide-open net.
That well-deserved assist gave Subban a six-game point-scoring streak, making him the first Montreal defenseman to record points in that many consecutive playoff games since Hall of Famer Larry Robinson in 1985. Given all the great players in the history of the franchise, Subban is starting to join some impressive company. And though he plays a high-tempo game that sometimes frustrates even his own coach, he can make plays with quick thinking, such as that one.
• Subban delivered the big hit of the first period, doing as much damage to his own team as he can to the opposition. While trying to catch Boston’s Reilly Smith, who was moving through center ice. Subban caught a piece of the Bruins winger, who managed to duck the worst of it, but the defenseman's momentum carried him into Vanek, who fell to the ice and missed several shifts later in the period. Sent to the box for roughing, Subban showed that he’s a man who knows how to make a grand entrance. As his penalty expired, he scooted out, took a lead pass from Lars Eller and headed up the ice on a breakaway. Outskating both Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, two excellent defensive players, he made one fake to his backhand that caught Rask leaning to his right and beat him on his forehand to give Montreal a 2-0 lead at 14:44 of the period.
• For all the early momentum the Canadiens had, the Bruins continued to press the attack and get odd-man rushes by pushing the puck up and not hesitating to have a defenseman join the play. That cost them on Subban’s goal and one from Dale Weise, who caught blueliners Johnny Boychuk and Andrej Meszaros moving up. Weise took a lead pass from linemate Danny Briere and beat Rask to put the Habs up by three with six minutes left in the second period. It was the first time in Weise’s career (192 games), including the regular season, in which he recorded a goal and an assist in the same match. Briere, meanwhile, continues to contribute, even from the fourth line. The 36-year-old forward has 113 points in 115 career playoff games.
• Down, 3-1, after a goal by Bergeron late in the second period, Boston pulled their goalie with just under three minutes to play in regulation time and it paid off quickly as Lucic fed Meszaros, who skated in from the point and had his shot tipped in by Jarome Iginla. The Bruins have rallied from multiple-goal deficits before, but Eller’s empty-netter sealed the win for Montreal. This was the fourth straight game in which the Habs held a two-goal lead, but they had let their opponents rally to tie the score or go ahead in the previous three.
• Boston’s top line of David Krejci, Iginla and Lucic combined for just four shots and struggled for most of the night. Bruins’ coach Claude Julien has usually resisted the temptation to break them up, but is it time for a change now? Carl Soderberg has had a good jump to his game throughout most of the postseason and could add a spark. Does Julien dare tinker with personnel in the middle of a series to shake up his team?
• And just how frustrated is Boston at this point? In between games, the Bruins broke a cardinal rule of off-ice discourse, but they did it deliberately and strategically. You know the old bromides about beating opposing goalies: “Well, we just need to get pucks to the net” and “We need to get bodies in front of him.” You don’t put blackboard fodder on a tee for the other team and you don’t show your hand. Boston did just that. The Bruins were surely trying to plant some doubt in Price’s head when both Julien and his players said that they wanted to shoot high against him because they felt they could beat him there. It's the same sort of strategy the Bruins used last year in the Stanley Cup Final against Chicago’s Corey Crawford, who struggled with shots to his glove side. The Bruins talked up his weakness, surely after some internal discussion, in order to make Crawford think about it and perhaps overcompensate for a perceived weakness. To Crawford’s and Price’s credit, both goalies responded with strong efforts. The Bruins did try to shoot high on Price a couple of times on Tuesday night, especially from angles, but he held his own and didn’t overthink what he had to do.
For now, it’s Goaltender 1, Gamesmanship 0.
The Bruins and Canadiens meet in Game 4 in Montreal on Thurs. night at 7:30 ET (NBCSN, CBC, RDS).