BOSTON – Threats in the handshake line, spears, a tossed helmet, flexed biceps, chest pounding and a squirted water bottle from the bench. It was two weeks of anger and antics, this 34th playoff meeting between the Habs and Bruins; there was basically everything but a biting incident.
It was proof that even after all of this time you can put a group of men in each of these sweaters and expect civility to be stripped away over seven games. The notion of rivalries in sports is often a forced storyline, but with Montreal and Boston it inevitably reverts to the storyline.
And when it all came to an angry end on Wednesday night, amid accusations that Milan Lucic threatened to get back at Dale Weise and Alexei Emelin next season, Montreal left the TD Garden feeling that it had accomplished something more than simply winning a playoff round. There was a sense among the players that they had rediscovered something long ago misplaced.
“The one thing you have to realize is that respect was earned,” P.K. Subban said after a 3-1 win in Game 7. “Whether you think it was or not, no matter what anybody says or not, they have to respect us. And people have to respect us.”
There isn’t another franchise in the NHL that celebrates its history quite like the Canadiens. The pre-game introductions, the ceremonies, the show. But even with the 24 crisp white Stanley Cup championship banners hanging in the Bell Centre respect is not a given.
Truth be told, most current NHLers view Montreal as an organization that has a long past but an undistinguished recent history. Consider that this will be just the second time the Habs have advanced beyond the second round since 1993. And it was only two seasons ago that they finished dead last in the Eastern Conference standings.
Subban and standout goaltender Carey Price were part of that team. So were Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges, Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, Lars Eller and others. These men remember what it was like to be a laughingstock and they can appreciate how much better it is to be contributing something positive to the story of the oldest organization in hockey.
The Habs are now 25-9 in a playoff series against their fiercest rival.
“I learned when I was probably four or five years old to hate them,” Daniel Briere said of the Bruins. “Personally for me, this is a pretty wild feeling.”
There won’t be any of those feelings when they open the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon, at least not to start. They were both part of the NHL’s Original Six, but there is no continuous link to the past like there is with Boston. Perhaps the only thing to get worked up about is the fact that Rangers coach Alain Vigneault – just like Claude Julien of the Bruins – once ran the Habs bench.
However, that’s a stretch.
This is an unexpected turn of events. The Bruins finished 17 points ahead of Montreal in the standings, they won the Presidents’ Trophy, they went on a murderous 15-1-1 run through March. They were built to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in four years and they were expected to handle the Habs with relative ease.
Heck, they even backed Montreal into a corner by building a 3-2 series lead … and then let it slip away.
“The last two games we made some uncharacteristic mistakes, and that ended up costing us,” said goalie Tuukka Rask, who was outplayed by Price. “It’s not like it’s anybody’s fault. We just couldn’t take the next step as a team and raise our game.”
The “antics,” as Briere referred to them, helped fuel the upset. Subban had to deal with racist tweets after scoring the overtime winner in Game 1 and Price had to answer questions about a perceived weakness when Dougie Hamilton suggested they had figured him out.
On the ice, Lucic pounded his chest after scoring an empty-net goal and Thornton squirted Subban with water from the bench and Brad Marchand threw Brendan Gallagher’s helmet across the ice and Lucic and Weise took turns flexing their muscles.
There were indiscretions on both sides of the ledger but the Habs strategy was to turn the other cheek as much as possible. The alleged threats by Lucic in the post-series handshake line were evidence that they had successfully beat him at his own game. They had frustrated him.
“We got them off their game a bit, and it might sound like something stupid to someone who’s not in this series, but it goes a long way,” said Max Pacioretty. “I believe in respect, and I believe in the hockey gods, and I believe in karma, and it gave us that extra motivation. We have respect for them, and we wanted that in return.”
The deciding game was close from beginning to end, but these simply weren’t the same Bruins of years gone by. This is a team that has wiggled its way out of the straightjacket with water rising above its knees as often as Harry Houdini, but it couldn’t find the magic formula to solve Price.
There might not be a better goaltender on the planet right now. He turned aside another 29 shots on Wednesday and has allowed just two goals in five must-win games in 2014, which includes a gold-medal performance with Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics.
Otherwise, Game 7 was a game of opportunities. The Habs started quick and used their speed to create havoc in the Boston zone. Weise contributed an early goal, Pacioretty added another in the second period after a Bruins turnover and Briere provided the necessary breathing room when he scored with 2:53 left in regulation.
All of the noise and energy and excitement had been sucked out of the building before the final buzzer sounded – just as Subban predicted it would. He had a fantastic second round with seven points against the Bruins and was immediately looking forward to the conference final. He’s already told younger teammates that there is no place like Montreal in the playoffs.
“I feel sorry for any team that’s got to come into our building and our city,” said Subban. “It’s going to be spectacular. I can’t even explain it. You’ve just got to be there, man.
“So get your tickets.”
The show is only just beginning. To play for the Canadiens is to constantly be reminded of the greats; it is to take the torch from Richard, from Beliveau, from Lafleur, from Roy. It is an impossibly high standard to live up to.
However, the players of today are trying to embrace their time with the fire. Subban turned 25 on Tuesday and his father, Karl, suggested that the best birthday present of them all would be helping the Habs deliver a 25th championship banner into the rafters.
They are living history every day.
“When you see all of the highlight videos and when they talk about the history of the rivalry and you see all the players I’m saying to myself: `Wow, I’m going to be a part of that. Thirty or 40 years from now, when the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens meet in the playoffs again, they’re going to show clips of me and Pricey and all of us playing,”’ said Subban.
“I think that’s pretty cool, that’s unique. It’s very special to be part of something like this.”