Jack Todd: Gritty Canadiens refuse to be pushed around
Speedy Habs skate Bruins into the ice in epic playoff series
Canadiens’ Dale Weise, left, celebrates his first-period goal with Brandon Prust and Daniel Brière during Game 7 at the TD Garden in Boston on Wednesday night. Alex Trautwig/Getty Images
Photograph by: Alex Trautwig, Getty Images
There was a moment about halfway through the first period of this decisive game in an epic hockey series when the Boston Bruins appeared to have caught a break.
The Canadiens were leading 1-0 on an early goal by secret weapon Dale Weise when Max Pacioretty and Zdeno Chara got tangled in a little WWE match in the corner behind the Montreal net. Both were sent off and the teams were playing 4-on-4.
Then it happened. The Canadiens went for a change and Dougie Hamilton, the young Boston defenceman, had what appeared to be an open highway of empty ice in front of him.
Before Hamilton could even hit the blue line, however, Andrei Markov, Lars Eller and Alexei Emelin came steaming off the Canadiens’ bench, the space Hamilton thought he had vanished behind a trio of white jerseys and the threat was choked off before it was even born — and some of the older Montreal fans crouching nearsighted in the vicinity of their television sets were muttering “flying Frenchmen.”
Well, two Russians and a Dane. But they were most definitely flying. There was nothing “neutral” about the neutral zone last night. For the Canadiens, it was a launching pad, the place where odd-man rushes were born.
The Canadiens were full value for their biggest playoff win since 1993. They led most of the series, they outskated and outfought, and finally outscored what was supposed to be a superior opponent, right through a heart-stopping Game 7.
Still, you knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Even when Max Pacioretty (who got hot at exactly the right time) gave the Canadiens a 2-0 lead, the Bruins were still a big, bad bear. Hurting a little, perhaps, but still dangerous.
Just how dangerous became clear when Jarome Iginla scored on a power play with Pacioretty in the box to pull the Bruins within 2-1.
But the way this series went, it was absolutely fitting that it came down to the diminutive Danny Brière, firing a shot that went off the skate of an exhausted Chara to make it 3-1 Montreal and seal the 25th Canadiens victory in 34 playoff series against Boston.
This was always going to be Montreal speed against Boston brawn. In that contest, most people gave the edge to the Bruins. Too big, too strong, too tough, they said. The Bruins would lay a wallop on a Hab or two and the Canadiens would break like cheap glass.
Instead, it was the Bruins who broke early, worn down and skated into the ice by a significantly faster Canadiens team. Again and again, the big, bad Bruins tried to line up the CH on those jerseys for a big hit — but you can’t hit smoke. They caught some air, they caught some glass, now and then they landed a glancing blow, but Milan Lucic in particular was left looking like a big, slow boxer chasing a quicksilver welterweight champion around the ring.
And while these might be your grandfather’s Canadiens, they aren’t your father’s Habs. They’re the best Montreal team in 20 years because, after trying for years to get bigger and tougher, they may not be Boston strong — but they’re Montreal strong. Tough enough, in other words.
If the enduring image of this series is not Lucic missing one wallop after another, it’s players like Brendan Gallagher and David Desharnais hitting the towering Chara. Gallagher, who wouldn’t back down in a confrontation with King Kong, was seen going chest to chest (well, head to belly-button, anyway) with Chara in the first period, making it clear: If the Canadiens lost, it was not going to be because they were pushed around.
Brian Gionta, Alexei Emelin, Mike Weaver, Josh Gorges, Tomas Plekanec — as usual when you win a series like this, everyone was involved. Gionta proved that he is neither too old nor too slow, Emelin made Lucic hear footsteps, Weaver looked like a first-round pick, Gorges freed P.K. Subban to do his thing, Plekanec played like the canny veteran he is.
And always, start to finish, there was Carey Price. For the first time in his career, Price has led his team into the third round of the playoffs. It may seem improbable but with eight more victories, he can win Olympic gold and a Stanley Cup in the same season.
In this series, Price was merely superb. His calm seemed to radiate to his teammates, to keep everyone focused and on track.
So put away your defibrillators for a few days, folks. Next up, it’s Alain Vigneault, Martin St. Louis and the New York Rangers, with a berth in the Stanley Cup final on the line.
I hate to say I told you so — but I told you so: Montreal in seven games. I should have gone to Las Vegas.
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