TORONTO — It was nothing more than an honest answer to a straightforward question, but it’s clearly become bulletin board material for the Montreal Canadiens.
When Joffrey Lupul told sportsnet.ca Friday afternoon that Toronto is “physically a lot bigger and stronger” than Montreal — which is essentially a statement of fact — the Habs took notice.
“We heard about the comment, we saw the comment from Lupul and some of the players,” Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said Saturday before facing the Leafs. “Honestly, I’d like to keep what I think about it for myself and I’m sure our players know.
“This is going to stay in the dressing room.”
The Leafs took three of the first four meetings from the Canadiens during the regular season and can increase the odds of facing them in the playoffs by winning Saturday night.
That prompted Friday’s question to Lupul about what was behind the success against Montreal.
“We’re physically a lot bigger and stronger,” he said. “They have a lot of speed and skill and (Carey) Price is a difference maker. I know he’s a little bit off his game right now, but I would expect him to find it. He’s a competitive guy.
“But our thing is getting pucks in deep on them, finish checks, especially on lots of the smaller, skilled players. Over a long series that type of thing pays off.”
By the time the Habs took the ice for Saturday’s morning skate, it was clear that they had found a little extra motivation from those comments. In many ways, the timing couldn’t have been better with the team on a 2-5-0 slide since it clinched a playoff spot.
“We’ve got a lot of character in here,” said Habs forward Brandon Prust. “Maybe they have bigger size, but it’s not always the size of the dog in the fight.”
The war of words has been escalating between the teams.
After Toronto’s 5-1 victory at Air Canada Centre on Apr. 13 — a game that saw 5-foot-9 Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher mix it up with Toronto’s Nazem Kadri — Gallagher told the Hamilton Spectator that Kadri gets “scared” on the ice.
“He sits on the bench yapping his mouth, he gets on the ice and all of a sudden he’s scared,” said Gallagher. “I don’t know what to say about that. There’s a lot of guys in this league I respect … I don’t know if he’s one of them.”
On Saturday morning, Kadri mentioned that he was curious to see what Gallagher had in store for him later that night.
For his part, Gallagher made it clear that he won’t be looking to settle any personal scores.
“It’s about managing your emotions and playing the right way and not going outside yourself to hurt the team,” he said. “I think it’s important at this time of year to not be selfish – think about the team before yourself.
“It’s going to be important to play our game and not let the emotions get a hold of us.”
That will be a challenge on both sides of the ice.
With a playoff atmosphere already buzzing through the city and playoff implications hinging on the result, it promised to be an emotional evening.
“Any time you play Toronto it’s a huge game no matter what the circumstances are,” said Habs defenceman Josh Gorges. “I’ve always said that because you never want to lose to Toronto. You could ask anyone on Toronto, they would never want to lose to Montreal.
“It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, what the standings are, anything like that.”
The Habs will start backup Peter Budaj in net while James Reimer is expected to get the call for Toronto.