MONTREAL – Amidst an extraordinary hockey season, the sources of discontent for chronic Bruins complainers continue to disappear. One more axe came to a definitive demise in Wednesday night’s Game 4 when the Black and Gold enjoyed a sight they haven’t witnessed much in their 85-year history.
The Bruins absolutely spanked the rival Canadiens in a four-game playoff series, and finished off the hated Habs in their own building with a textbook 4-1 victory. The B’s certainly derived an extra bit of joy watching the Montreal hockey fans turn on their own team and shower goaltender Carey Price with mock cheers after he stopped a B’s dump-in attempt during the second period.
The final game in the series was the perfect example of the reversal of fortune that both hockey clubs have experienced in one short year.
The final picture on the ice was of Bruins and Canadiens players – sans Mike Komisarek, who was conveniently tossed from the contest with a game misconduct for cross-checking Milan Lucic in the face – taking part in the ceremonial post-series handshake while angry Habs fans gunned their white towels on to the ice in disgust. The B’s were savoring the sweet victory after the game, but also looking to the next challenge.
“It’s nice to be in the second round,” said B’s captain Zdeno Chara. “That was the goal this season. To keep constantly improving and keep getting better. That’s our attitude and our approach during the season, and we’ve carried that over into the playoffs. To be able to finish in four straight games is a good feeling, and we have extra days now to enjoy, rest up and heal anything bothering us.”
The sight of downtrodden Habs players humbled on their own ice come playoff time is almost unheard of in the storied history of the Bruins/Canadiens. Even better, it simultaneously banishes every last bit of talk about the Boston’s failures to get out of the first round over the last decade. It’s not quite as cathartic as when the Ray Bourque and Cam Neely-led Bruins teams finally broke Montreal’s stranglehold back in 1988, but a four-game sweep leaving the Habs in a head-shaking shambles has its own particular joys.
Joe Thornton, Glen Murray, Harry Sinden and Hal Gill aren’t walking through that door, and that’s exactly why the playoff bugaboos that once tormented this hockey squad have been banished. It had been 10 long years since the Black and Gold had last won a playoff series, and Wednesday night’s triumph was the ultimate proof that it’s a brand new Bruins era since Peter Chiarelli, Cam Neely, Jim Benning, Don Sweeney and Co. have taken control of the hockey operations.
“There’s a disconnect there because really nobody besides Axy…there haven’t been a lot of players that experienced that lack of success with this team,” said B’s defenseman Aaron Ward. “For us, it’s a pretty fresh group of faces and we’re creating our own pathway right now.”
Many of the tired critiques that could be lobbed at the Bruins have gone by the wayside, and now the current Bruins team is focused on winning games and advancing through “the tournament” rather than handling questions about playoff droughts and historic struggles against the Canadiens.
P.J. Axelsson is the only player still wearing a Spoked B sweater who remembers both Boston’s last playoff triumph and the struggles against the CHC that followed in the playoffs. Let’s just say he wasn’t exactly racked with anxiety about it.
“I thought about it a little bit (before the playoffs), but it’s not like I was losing any sleep over it,” said Axelsson. “It was definitely a little sweeter this time. I think I was too young back then. It’s probably more relief now (than excitement). It’s nice to see we carried our play into the playoffs, and played the exact same way that we played during the season.”
The implied thought there being that past B’s teams from early in Axelsson’s tenure didn’t always consistently bring their game with them into the playoffs, but that’s a Ghost of Bruins’ past now. This team has other hockey mountains to climb this spring.
Here are Five Things We Learned as the Bruins closed out the Canadiens:
1) The four-game sweep will greatly benefit the Bruins in the long run
One of the keys to any hockey team’s run to the Stanley Cup is having a short series in one of the first couple of rounds before the heavy-hitting seven-game matchups begin in the conference finals and Cup Finals. It’s beneficial for a hockey club to get through those first few rounds with as few battle scars and injuries as humanly possible, and the B’s have done just that in dispatching the Habs in four straight dominant games.
It’s been 11 years since a team won the Stanley Cup without going either 4-0 or 4-1 over at last one of their opponents in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings went 4-2 over the Phoenix Coyotes and 4-2 over the St. Louis Blues and then 4-2 over the Dallas Stars in the semi-finals before – ironically – sweeping the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Since then every Stanley Cup champ has closed out an early series in five or fewer games, and it’s basically become imperative that a hockey club do it to keep fresh for the dangerous opponents that wait in the latter rounds. Now, the Bruins have a chance to potentially rest for up to a week while waiting for the rest of the playoff series to shake out, and see who they’ll be playing in the next round.
2) The Montreal Canadiens are a huge mess on every possible level
Was it the mock cheer that greeted Carey Price in the second period when he stopped a harmless dump-in attempt by the Bruins after letting in two goals that really took the game out of reach? Was it the chants of “Carbo” and “Guy” meant to memorialize the fired coach and get under GM/head coach Bob Gainey’s skin in the waning moments of the third period? Was it the avalanche of white Canadiens “terrible towels” getting tossed on the ice like the ultimate sign of hockey surrender following the game’s conclusion?
There are many more questions to ask about a once-glorious hockey franchise that exited the first round of the playoffs with the kind of whimper that used to be saved for the Bruins in years past.
With 10 Unrestricted Free Agents on the roster and an ownership group that’s perhaps ready to change hands, there could be many changes to the makeup of this team by the time next season rolls around. Take it to the bank that players like Mike Komisarek and the Kostitsyn Brothers will be long gone and hard to find now that the season is over, and perhaps Gainey, too, will exit after a disastrous performance in this supposedly special Centennial season for the Habs.
Yes, they were banged up and missing their best center (Robert Lang) and their best defenseman (Andrei Markov), but this is a team that’s dropped a long way from being the No. 1 seed in the East last season.
3) Milan Lucic made a positive out of a negative and learned a valuable lesson in Game 2 of the series
It would have been very easy for Milan Lucic – in the third period of a 4-1 hockey game that had already been decided – to retaliate against Mike Komisarek after the Habs defenseman delivered a cross-check in the face right by the Bruins bench. Komisarek continued with an extended face wash following the cross-check and cut open Lucic’s left check. This was after Lucic had already toppled Komisarek with a strong right hand near the end of the second period.
The 20-year-old forward instead showed how much he learned from the incident in Game 2, however, when he was suspended a game for retaliating and hitting Maxim Lapierre in the face as he approached the big forward. He knows how hard his Bruins teammates have worked to limit the Habs’ time on the power play – the Canadiens ended with only eight PP opportunities in the four-game sweep – and he wasn’t about to let that go by the boards with an emotional explosion.
“Congratulations Looch,” said Ward. “You get cross-checked in the face and you’re able to maintain your composure. That’s key and that’s what we talked about in Game 2. We need him in the next series and there’s no point in going after retribution. It’s useless at this point.
“All these things happen in a long series and inevitably – if a player is taking liberties with you – you’ll encounter that player again. He got his opportunity (in the second-period fight).”
4) Phil Kessel is even better during the playoffs.
In eight playoff games against the Canadiens over the last two seasons, Phil Kessel now has eight goals and 10 overall points to show for his efforts. It’s no understatement to say that the 21-year-old Kessel is a game-breaking offensive force for the Black and Gold during the playoffs.
When EA Sports conducted a computer simulation prior to the playoffs and came out with the B’s as Stanley Cup champs, Kessel actually “won” the imaginary Conn-Smythe with 16 goals scored during the run to the Cup. That total is starting to look less like an imaginary figment and more like a possibility with each passing game.
Teams simply have no answer for his blazing skating speed and goaltenders can’t solve his quick release. Kessel is playing with the full commitment that sometimes waned over the course of a long 82-game season.
“We all know he’s a great skater with great speed and a really good shot,” said Chara. “As long as he’s moving his feet and skating and using his advantages, he’s very effective. He’s not really a big player, but he certainly plays big in a lot of areas. He’s a game-breaker. You give it to him and you know he can score on every shift at every time from any position because he’s got that great touch and a great snapshot.”
5) Claude Julien is a class act and wouldn’t take the bait from the Montreal hordes
It had to be sweet for ex-Habs like Claude Julien and Michael Ryder to stomp all over the Canadiens in their own building during this playoff series, but neither admitted as much at any point during the series. Ryder finally admitted during Wednesday night’s postgame that “it felt good to beat your old team,” but Julien didn’t when a reporter posed a “Belichick/Mangini handshake” type question to Julien.
A Canadian reporter blessed with eagle eyes said he could tell that Bob Gainey didn’t make eye contact with Julien during the ceremonial handshake, and wondered what Julien’s reaction was to the slight. Julien, of course, was fired by Gainey during the 2006-07 NHL season and eventually replaced with the deposed Guy Carbonneau during the following season. Gainey was showered with chants of “Guy, Guy, Guy” and “Carbo, Carbo, Carbo” during the latter half of the game, but Julien said he wasn’t deriving any satisfaction from any of it.
“It’s certainly not correct because I looked him right in the eyes,” said Julien. “Everybody would like for me to say something that would make them happy as far as revenge is concerned. Bob Gainey did not enjoy firing me and neither did (Devils GM) Lou Lamoriello if we want to talk about that stuff,” said Julien. “Nobody enjoys doing that job. (It’s the) same thing with the Gillette family here in Montreal. You’ve got to be able to separate business from the personal things. I learned a ton from Bob and the Gillette family treated me extremely well, so there’s no reason for me to be sitting here saying I’m bitter. I’m coaching in the best league in the world. My first opportunity was here in Montreal. They gave me my first opportunity, then I was in New Jersey and now I’m in Boston. I couldn’t be happier than where I am, and that doesn’t take anything from what happened here tonight.”