Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Call 911! Bruins and Habs Set for Round One Showdown
Here we are.
After weeks of staring down Montreal as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, Bruins fans have been preparing for a first round matchup of epic proportions. Whenever Montreal and Boston get together, hockey fans know that they are in for a treat, but considering the events of this season, they should expect the vitriol between the two clubs to reach an all-time high.
Montreal took the regular season series 4-2, but the games took several twists and turns after January 1st. Shortly after the New Year, Montreal embarrassed Boston, coming from behind to steal a 3-2 overtime victory. However the tone was set for the rest of the season when game-winning goal scorer Max Pacioretty bumped Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara after lighting the lamp in overtime. Chara then went after Pacioretty and later refused to answer questions from the media, a questionable move coming from the team Captain, especially after such a crushing defeat.
The Bruins took out their frustration the next time the two teams met, beating the Habs 8-6 in Boston, with both teams combining for 187 penalty minutes in one of the more memorable games any of us will ever see. Their next meeting will live in infamy both in Boston and Montreal, when Zdeno Chara angled Max Pacioretty into the turnbuckle between the team’s benches, when it was reported that he suffered a cracked vertebrae and severe concussion. This set off a firestorm of embarrassing rhetoric by Montreal fans and media, as Bruins players and fans alike rushed to Chara’s aid to defend the hit. The NHL sided with Chara, as they ruled the play a “hockey play” and elected not to suspend or fine Big Z for the hit. The story, however, did not end there.
Habs fans flooded 911, shutting down their emergency call center, hoping to prosecute Chara on criminal charges. Quebec police launched a full investigation into the hit, further embarrassing their province and city, (no way would this happen in Calgary, Edmonton, or Vancouver). The Bruins responded in the best way possible in their last meeting of the season, humiliating the Habs 7-0 at the Garden, out skating Montreal on their way to a lopsided victory.
The Bruins meet up with Montreal on Thursday night in Boston for a highly anticipated opening round series. Here are a few things to watch for as the most heated rivalry in Hockey continues.
Key Matchup: Special Teams
Every Bruins fan is more than familiar with the term “puck moving defenseman.” So much so that the mere mention of the phrase turned fans stomachs in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline. B’s fans clamored for GM Peter Chiarelli to trade for a D man to help the Power Play unit, and they were rewarded when the Bruins traded for Tomas Kaberle. However the results were not as expected, as the Bruins finished the season scoring 16.2% of the time with the man advantage. This will need to improve against Montreal’s 84.4% Penalty Killing efficiency. The Bruins’ superb defensive strategy will be tested against Montreal’s speedy forwards, especially on the man advantage. The Canadiens are slightly better on the Power Play, scoring at a 19.7% clip with the extra skater. The special teams numbers favor Montreal, and this is something that they will look to in order to expose the Bruins and gain an advantage in the series.
Key Players: (BOS) Milan Lucic – The Bruins’ only 30 goal scorer, Lucic has bounced back quite nicely from an injury-riddled 2009-10 campaign. While he chooses not to drop the gloves as often as in years past, Lucic has shown that he can still play his physical brand of hockey, while at the same time lighting the lamp. His importance to the first line alongside Nathan Horton and David Krejci cannot be understated, as they have been on a tear in the last few weeks of the season. They all have to get going in order to be successful and it starts with Lucic and his two-way play to put fear in the hearts of the Canadiens.
(MTL) Scott Gomez – Gomez has been a mainstay in the Montreal lineup, averaging 18:33 minutes of ice time per game this season and has played 80 games, but has failed to produce offensively. In fact, he had his worst season of his 11-year career, scoring just 7 goals all year long. Gomez needs to break his scoring drought, which has lasted since February 6th. His 29 game slide must end if the Canadiens want to have a chance in this series.
What to Watch For: Chara – Paccioretty Hangover – Clearly one of the biggest subplots to this series is going to be Zdeno Chara versus the city of Montreal, especially when the Bruins head north of the border for games 3 and 4. Bruins management has decided to relocate the team to Lake Placid, NY in between games 3 and 4 to minimize distractions from the relentless Montreal media and fan base. Simply put, the Canadiens have no answer for Chara, so hopefully the Bruins Captain can tune out the white noise and dominate the series.
Officiating – In the wake of the Chara hit, Montreal media members went on record and said that they get beneficial calls based on who is officiating as well as who is in the stands. When Campbell and Bettman were in attendance for the 7-0 drubbing, media members from America’s Hat told Boston radio hosts Felger and Mazz that they expected a closely called game because of the people in attendance. The Canadiens were expected to dive and embellish penalties more than usual, and they did. To quote Brad Marchand, the Canadiens play “weasely, greasy” hockey, and will certainly look to do their best Greg Louganis impression in order to capitalize on the power play.
Goaltending – “Goaltending is the most important thing in the playoffs”. That cliché has been slung around for so many years, it makes “run the ball, stop the run” in football look fresh. While great goaltending certainly helps in the postseason, it is not the most important aspect of the game. Out of the last ten Vezina winners, only ONE has made it out of the SECOND ROUND of the playoffs (Brodeur in ’03). Every other Vezina winner has failed to even make it to the conference finals, proving that great goaltending does not directly correlate to success. The Flyers were on their third string goalie last year and made it to the Stanley Cup finals, so you don’t have to have the second coming of Pat Roy to win the Cup.
Prediction: The Bruins have to take both games at home, because Montreal is going to be an absolute madhouse by the time the Bruins come to town on Monday night. I expect a fast-paced, emotionally charged series that will last six games. Montreal has proven this year that they can beat the Bruins both at home and on the road, and they will take game three or four. That being said, Chara and the Bruins are going to be too much for the Canadiens in the long run and will overpower Montreal on the way to the Eastern Conference semifinals. Bruins in 6.