FELGER PRONOUNCES HIS FEAR AND TREMBLING ABOUT THE HABS
I’m scared of the Canadiens.
I’m scared of the Bruins.
I’m scared that after watching more hockey this season and becoming more emotionally invested in this team than any other since I covered the Bruins as a beat guy in 1999, that the B’s first-round victory over Carolina that year will remain their last postseason triumph.
It’s a little pathetic, I know. But I don't know how anyone could have followed this team over the past 15 years, during which the B's advanced to the second round once, and declare themselves confident heading into the postseason.
Don’t be mistaken. I’m not worried about the ghosts of Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur or too many men on the ice. I'm not that pathetic. This isn’t a Red Sox thing, circa 2003. I’m worried about this group of modern-day Canadiens and this group of modern-day Bruins.
The way the Canadiens play scares the crap out of me. They dive, turtle and draw penalties. I was talking to a B’s player recently, and he told me that there were more diving penalties called in the teams’ first-round series last year than in all of the B’s 82 regular season games combined. I didn’t feel like going through every box score from 2007-2008 to confirm this, but the point is that the B’s believe it to be true. The way Montreal plays is in their head. The Habs draw the referees into these games like no other team. Montreal has a good power play, a better one than the numbers would indicate (12th in the league). It scares me.
I dread a guy like Saku Koivu. He was the cancer-surviving, Montreal captain in 2001-02, when the eighth-seeded Habs beat the top-seeded Bruins in six games. He was the Montreal captain in 2003-04, when the seventh-seeded C Canadiens came back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the No. 2 seed Bruins, holding the Bruins to three goals over the final three games and shutting them out in Game 7. Forget Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer. Koivu will be the Habs captain on Thursday when Montreal comes to Boston for another Game 1 as a prohibitive underdog.
I could name more scary things and more worrisome Montreal players, but that would take all day. I’ll just leave you with this, Joe:
Last Thursday’s overtime win by the B’s terrifies me. If the B’s are that much better than Montreal, then why was that a dead-even game up and down the ice? Both teams treated the game the same way -- they put everything into it. Neither had the edge in healthy players (the B's were without defenseman Andrew Ference and Dennis Wideman; Montreal missed top defenseman Andrei Markov but was able to rush back fellow injured blue-liner Mathieu Schneider). And it looked to me like these teams were equal (shots were 39-33 in favor of Montreal). The Bruins are supposed to have a big advantage in net, but I didn't see it that night. This was a de facto playoff game, and it could have gone either way.
And that's what scares me about this series: it could go either way.
HAGGS ATTEMPTS TO OFFER REASSURANCE TO HIS FRIGHTENED COLLEAGUE
Mike, It’s okay to be scared of what could go wrong in a series against the Canadiens. It’s okay to see Alex Kovalev finally looking like a guy who wants to play hockey instead of dropping into the full-bore Russian pout in which he’s seemingly been mired all season. It’s okay to see Carey Price actually stopping a puck here or there and looking like a legitimate goaltender since Bob Gainey pulled a Michael Corleone and whacked Guy Carbonneau following Montreal’s first-half mess. In fact, the whole Habs team has pulled together under Gainey and seems to again be in the mood to play some hockey at the right time of year.
All that being said, they only went 6-6-4 in the 16 games leading up to the playoffs following Carbonneau’s dismissal. I don’t exactly call that finishing strong.
All of the above simply means you’re not overlooking this Canadiens team like you might have against a no-name Florida Panthers team or a low-scoring, defense-first team like the Rangers that basically tries to put the sleeper hold on an opponent in boring, tight-checking 1-0 games.
This is why it was important for the Bruins to play the Canadiens in the first round. There were two scenarios that I saw as potential stumbling blocks for the top-seeded B’s entering this first round matchup: A) a hot goaltender was going to swoop in and steal a few games en route to taking the series or B) the Bruins were going to completely overlook their first-round opponent and take them too lightly.
I don’t care how good Price has looked lately; I don’t see either one of the two outlined doomsday scenarios playing out in a first round matchup with the Canadiens. Price has struggled all season to retain his starting job and has wilted under the pressure exerted by the fickle, demanding Habs fan base. The scrutiny is almost like being a closer for the Boston Red Sox, and Price has been much more Heathcliff Slocumb than Jonathan Papelbon this year.
This series will put the Bruins into playoff mode immediately and get them focused on the task at hand. You can feel the hate on the ice when the Habs and Bruins are at work – as they were in last Thursday’s instant classic when they racked up so many penalty minutes (76) that official scorers and referees lapsed into prolonged, confused delays on multiple occasions. The refs simply couldn’t hash out what the actual penalty calls were and who was going in the box. That’s how out of control that game was.
Hockey isn’t played in that Old Time style much in the Gary Bettman Era, and the refs weren’t equipped to deal with it. What that speaks to is the amount of passion, strong feelings and enmity that guys like Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard will be playing with once the opening bell rings at the Garden Thursday night. The Bruins need that hate.
The season’s biggest problems cropped up for the Bruins this year when they lost that fiery edge and weren’t playing with a bowling ball-sized chip on their shoulder. That “edge” will be ever-present against the Bleu, Blanc and Rouge, and should push them to some pretty great things. Don’t forget that the Bruins haven’t finished with 116 points in a season since the Bobby Orr Era of the early 1970’s. That’s how consistently dominant this B’s team has been this year.
Already, the Canadiens are shooting their mouths off and putting up bulletin board material to get the Bruins breathing fire in the upcoming series. The Black and Gold dominated this year’s series to the tune of a 5-0-1 record on the ice, and they beat the daylights out of Montreal “villains” like Mike Komisarek, Ryan O’Byrne, Tom Kostopoulos, and Maxim Lapierre during those games. But the Habs players are already sending out the message that they “preferred to play the Bruins” rather than the Capitals in the first round.
Former Bruins scrapper P.J. Stock works as a TV analyst for CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” and said prior to Saturday night’s Canadiens season finale that an unnamed Habs player told Stock that the Canadiens preferred to play the B’s rather than face Alexander Ovechkin and the second-seeded Washington Capitals. According to Stock, the Canadiens believe that they can do damage against Boston’s second and third D pairings. That doesn’t exactly scream out the sort of clichéd athlete-speak you normally hear from hockey teams prior to a playoff series.
“I spoke with a player from the Montreal Canadiens, and they’d prefer to play the Boston Bruins, believe it or not,” said Stock on HNIC. “They believe that (Boston’s) four, five and six (defensemen) don’t match up well (against Montreal).”
That is going to fire up the Bruins like no other opponent could have, but it won’t push them into another glove-dropping playoff donnybrook like what we saw last Thursday night. The Bruins had nothing to play for that night, and the Habs had everything to play for with their playoff lives on the line. Lucic, Chara and Shawn Thornton picked that largely meaningless game to settle scores with despised opponents, reveal the Canadiens for the diving, tumbling turtle doves that they are and intimidate the Canadiens at every corner.
All the fisticuffs and flying face-washes left the Habs with a handful of power plays in the second period, and the Canadiens cashed in on them. That won’t happen in the playoffs because the Bruins won’t play into the trap. Already several Bruins players – the same guys that were dragging Habs players around like rag-dolls on the ice the other night – have told me they’ll be “taking it like a man” once the playoffs start and the consequences have been raised to season-ending proportions. These Bruins understand the importance of every shift and how pivotal it is to keep the explosive Montreal PP unit off the ice.
Just look at what happened in the third period and overtime of the game in question last week. The B’s smartened up after spending 20 minutes using the Habs as a punching bag, and went back to playing the tough, disciplined game they’ll feature in the playoffs.
What happened after that? You know the answer to that Mikey. They tied the game in memorable fashion with Zdeno Chara down low by the net, and then Patrice Bergeron – who will factor hugely into this upcoming series – simply blew up a Montreal defenseman before setting up the game-winner in OT. That was your crystal ball moment as to how this upcoming series is going to go.
The Bruins won’t retaliate against the Habs' antics in the playoffs. They’re not stupid. They know better than to play into Mike Komisarek’s hands, and they know that every shift matters. You won’t see any team-wide brawls like you saw Thursday night, Mikey, so rest assured when you watch this game with your “I heart Jeremy Jacobs” T-shirt on and #1 foam-finger in place, you’ll be seeing the Bruins advance to the second round after a sure-to-be classic first-round series. Will that series take too much out of the Bruins going forward? That’s another question for another day, but it could be a legit worry going forward.
Oh, and one more thing. Saku Koivu? Really? A guy that scored 16 goals and managed only 50 points this season really scares you? I mean, my hat is off to him for surviving cancer and he’s a gritty competitor, but a center who can’t score more points during the regular season that Zdeno Chara or Dennis Wideman really doesn’t strike fear into my heart.
FELGER JUMPS ON THE ICE FOR HIS SECOND SHIFT
So the Canadiens would rather play the Bruins than the Capitals?
I don't blame them.
You don't seem to get it, Joe. You say last Thursday's game showed all the “passion, strong feelings and enmity” that the Bruins have for Montreal. I agree. If only that's what mattered in the playoffs. Boston has always hated the Canadiens -- and how's that worked out for them? You couldn't hate Montreal worse than Harry Sinden and his crew used to, and it wasn't until 1988 that they finally got past them. I wish “strong feelings” somehow factored into the outcome. The B's would own the Canadiens in the postseason every year.
As it turns out, Montreal has always used that hatred and aggressiveness against the Bruins. While the B's have charged into the corners and tried to take someone's head off, the Habs have passed and shot the puck better. Or they've drawn a penalty and gone on the power play. Or they've simply relied on better goaltending.
Which brings me to yet another big fear. It seems everyone is giving the Bruins the edge in net, but I'm reluctant to go there. I think it's an open question. Tim Thomas has played in one postseason series in his career and lost it. Carey Price has played in two, beating Thomas and the B's last year in the first round and then playing so poorly in round two against Philadelphia that he was benched. Thomas has had a much better season in 2008-09. Price was the better guy in 2007-08. Looks to me like both of them have something to prove.
How ridiculous, Joe, that you feel Stock's commentary will “fire up” the B's and that Montreal will get them into playoff mode quicker than Florida or the Rangers would have. So you're saying the B's wouldn't have had proper motivation against the Panthers? Let me just say this again in case there's any confusion: THE BRUINS HAVEN'T WON A PLAYOFF ROUND IN TEN YEARS. THEY'VE BEEN A NON-FACTOR IN THIS TOWN FOR A DECADE. And you're saying they wouldn't have realized what was at stake against the Rangers? God, I hope you're wrong about that. If you're not, I've overestimated this team.
If the Bruins believe that the most important thing in this series is being the more physical team, they're sunk. This series will come down to who does a better job finishing their scoring chances and who gets more consistent play in net. And you know what? The Bruins are as equipped to do it as any B's team I've seen in a long, long time. They are skilled and deep up front. Zdeno Chara is a force in back and a legit leader. Thomas has played great. They have what it takes.
So forget the hatred. Don't worry about motivation. Play hockey.
Bruins win in seven.
But I still don't like this matchup.
HAGGS DROPS THE GLOVES
Once again, Felgie, my overriding point has flown straight over your well-coiffed, Anchor Man head. I pointed out the comments Stock made for two reasons. The first was the obvious “bulletin board” material it represents for the Bruins. As I said before – and even somebody like you must have noticed while watching more hockey this year than you did in the last five combined – the Bruins are a much better team when they’re skating with equal parts snarl and surliness.
They don’t have a choice, Mike. They need to play that way. And you’re wrong about this series being about finishing off scoring chances. It’s about the Bruins getting back to their bedrock foundation, which is playing sound positional defense and keeping guys like Kovalev, Koivu and the Alex Tanguay out of the slot area as Claude Julien’s system dictates. This is part of the reason why Tim Thomas is so good, and this is the foundation upon which Boston’s Eastern Conference championship team is built.
It’s important the Bruins don’t forget that as you have, Mikey. The Canadiens are the high-skilled hockey ballerinas playing the puck possession game and diving and flopping while hoping to get things going on the power play. The Bruins are the intimidating defensive force that utilizes their skill on the counterattack to punch an opponent right in the gut when their opposition’s defense makes a mistake. Getting into a track meet up and down the ice, as you seem to want, is exactly what the Canadiens would love for this Bruins team to do.
But, getting back to my point, I have a problem with Montreal dogging the Bruins prior to this series because it’s indicative of a team that doesn’t have even a shred of direction and leadership. Can you picture the Patriots or the Red Sox calling out a top-ranked opponent prior to a playoff series?
That’s because they have strong leadership at the top and both Bill Belichick and Theo Epstein would just as soon cut off a player’s hands as give them ammunition prior to a series by calling out their second and third defensemen pairings. They’re basically poking the bear in the cage, and it’s a mistake. But should we be surprised?
This is a team that’s rumored to be on the block for sale and could potentially be sold to a group of interested parties that could include groups headed by the Molson Family, Cirque Du Soleil’s founder or Celine Dion’s husband. The players were involved in a scandal after it was discovered that they were associating with Russian mobsters and plenty of people of ill repute in the city of Montreal – of which there are many. My point is this: this Canadiens team has been a mess all season and simply doesn’t have what it takes when push comes to a shove and it’s “pucker time” in a Game 7 type scenario. Their penchant for mouthing off before the series starts is just another indication of their team weaknesses.
Mike Komisarek might draw a penalty or two in the heat of battle with the Bruins, Alex Kovalev will light a couple of lamps on the PP and Carey Price might even play well between the pipes for the Habs, but this team won’t be able to pull the same ghosts out of the closet as other editions of Les Habitants over the years against the beleaguered B’s.
This group of Bruins players doesn’t care about what happened 10 years ago between these particular teams, or why No Show Joe Thornton and the rest of the Bruins folded like a tent back in 2003-04. This is a different Bruins team, and they’re going to play their gritty, tough, bruising brand of hockey while beating the Habs on the ice and beating them up in the corners. They’ll do it a controlled way that’s dictated by the way games are called in the playoffs, but it will still be distinctively Bruins.
This is what they’ve done all year, and this is what they’ll do to advance over the Habs in a tense, intense seven-game series. It’s okay to be scared, Felger, but this hockey story is going to have a happy ending. At least it will in the first round. So just sit back and enjoy the kind of playoff hockey that’s going to fully revive this Bruins franchise in the city of Boston. Another game like last season’s Game 6 might just blow the roof clear off the Garden.