BOSTON – The first minor obstacle arrived early for the Montreal Canadiens. Before they even ventured into Bruins Country, in fact.
A late change of heart from the NHL on the start date for this second-round playoff series – the teams had Thursday’s Game 1 sprung on them after originally being told it would get going Friday or Saturday – left Montreal scrambling to secure new travel plans. With it being an extremely busy week in Boston, the team’s travelling contingent had to be split between two hotels for the start of the most important road trip of the season.
As far as inconveniences go, it could be worse; but clearly the situation was less than ideal. This being the Stanley Cup playoffs, however, the Habs had no choice but to adopt a Zen-like attitude. There are challenges both big and small to be overcome by every team at this time of year.
Many of them, such as a scheduling snafu, are beyond its control.
So it was telling that the only grumbling to be heard publicly on the matter came from Bruins head coach Claude Julien, who seemed displeased while alluding to "adjustments" the change had forced on his squad’s preparation. Perhaps that was a good early omen for the visitors, who will seize on anything they can get in a series where they are clearly the underdogs.
As unpredictable as the playoffs tend to be, there is no real mystery about what this particular matchup will bring. A meeting of the Bruins and Canadiens carries so much institutional memory with it that both sides know exactly what to expect from each other. In turn, everyone should know what to expect from them.
Big hits, the occasional dirty play, accusations from both sides about embellishment – and that’s just the start. The Bruins will look to impose their considerable physical will and shrink the size of the ice in the process. The Habs will want to expand the rink by moving quickly and avoid the impulse to seek retribution for every perceived slight.
"We can’t fall into any kind of, I don’t know how to put it, circustry?" Habs goalie Carey Price said Wednesday, knowingly reaching outside the boundaries of your typical English dictionary. "You can coin that one."
That will be easier said than done in the carnival-like atmosphere that should engulf games at TD Garden and the Bell Centre. Price, himself, said he expected those buildings to be "loud and probably obnoxious" and that seemed about right.
A certain level of chaos always seems to lurk just below the surface when the Habs and Bruins take the ice together. Even after three relatively benign regular-season games against one another this season, some bad blood surfaced quickly in the final meeting on March 23. All it took to send the top spinning off the table was an early Alexei Emelin hip check on Milan Lucic.
Lucic would later spear the Habs defenceman in the groin and refer to him as a "chicken" when speaking to reporters. During that same scrum the Bruins winger was asked why a lack of discipline always seemed to derail his team in games against Montreal, which had received a power-play goal from Emelin that night and prevailed in a shootout.
"I don’t know," Lucic replied. "It’s tough to say. I’ve been here for a long time and it’s almost been the same question for the last seven years. So I don’t have a real answer for you."
For Montreal and Boston, these playoffs are something that have seemed like they are happening somewhere else on television. The first round was full of drama and big comebacks and uncertainty. At least for everyone else.
The Canadiens completed a sweep over the Tampa Bay Lightning nine days ago while Boston comfortably dispatched another traditional foe, Detroit, in five games. Now the real fun begins. Incredibly, this is the 34th playoff series between these franchises and a matchup long dominated by the Habs has more recently swung in the Bruins favour.
They’ve taken six of the last 10 series against Montreal, including a first-round matchup in 2011 on the way to winning the Stanley Cup, and have their sights set on another championship. Boston didn’t lose more than two consecutive games all season while finishing with the most points in the entire NHL. However, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli was quick to point out this week that "we were mediocre against them during the year."
By any measure, this should be close. It could be incredibly close.
Price and Boston’s Tuukka Rask are two of the best goaltenders on planet, there is depth up and down each lineup and both teams are well-rested. The difference will come in the details. The "discipline," as Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty put it.
For all of the talk about the rivalry, the passion, the hate – the emotions – it will be imperative to find a measured response for the unexpected obstacles that pop up along the way.
Same as it ever was.