BOSTON – Inclusion. Not exactly the type the Montreal Canadiens were aiming for, but the kind that seems to be inescapable in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. For there is nothing like a couple blown leads in the third period to make you feel like you’re part of the club right now.
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During an eight-day wait for the second round to begin, the Habs could do nothing but look on longingly as the drama unfolded in rinks all over North America. “It was weird – I was sitting on my couch watching the other games and it was almost as if I was done playing,” Daniel Briere said before the puck finally dropped Thursday night and the Boston Bruins attempted to exact a death by a thousand cuts.
They would certainly have succeeded if Carey Price hadn’t shown up to TD Garden with a Superman cape. The goaltender was “outstanding,” in the words of head coach Michel Therrien, and even that might not have been enough. It was the type of performance that made you wonder how Price possibly missed out on being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
P.K. Subban wore a different look than that of his teammate – the foil – and was just as important to the final result. He froze Tuukka Rask with a point shot that stopped the game clock at 4:17 of the second overtime and sealed a 4-3 victory.
Branded “despicably villainous” in a column that appeared in the Boston Herald earlier this week, the defenceman spread his arms and waited for teammates to join him in celebration. The boos rained down, as did some garbage from the disgruntled locals. It was Subban’s second goal of the night.
“He’s a guy who likes it when there’s controversy, and he likes being booed by the fans too,” said teammate Francis Bouillon. “I knew he’d have a good series.”
The result may not have been entirely just on a night where Boston dominated possession and owned the most dangerous scoring chances, but the Habs weren’t making any apologies. It had been nearly a week and a half since they last played and that was an obstacle of its own.
There is no simulating the kind of environment that they faced in Game 1. You can practice and play closed-door exhibition games all you want, but there’s no escaping the feeling of someone who has unexpectedly walked from a dark room into bright lights once you arrive on a stage like this one.
“Our timing was off, to be honest,” said Therrien.
Montreal found its way through the feeling-out period and opportunistically built a two-goal lead after 40 minutes, but it didn’t feel safe or secure. There was still an awful long way to the clubhouse and teams visiting TD Garden tend to hear footsteps when they get ahead of the Bruins in big games.
Just ask the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs.
The one wildcard was Price, who seemed intent on beating the Bruins all by himself. So imposing was the Canadiens goaltender that the Boston players repeatedly shot wide in an attempt to find a hole in him that didn’t exist.
Eventually, they hit on a formula that worked. Don’t let Price see the puck at all. Rielly Smith’s goal at 2:44 of the third period went through the legs of both Andrei Markov and Patrice Bergeron before hitting twine. The Montreal lead went completely up in smoke less than four minutes later when Torey Krug teed it up from the left circle.
By then the Bruins looked like a giant boulder tumbling down a mountain face. It honestly didn’t seem like they could be stopped. Almost cruelly, the Habs snatched back some hope when Bouillon fired a wrist shot behind Rask on a rare rush up the ice; but Johnny Boychuk had the answer with just 1:58 remaining in regulation, hammering a shot that Price didn’t even wave a glove at because Subban was blocking his view.
There was a disappointment in that moment, but also understanding. Subban has faced the Bruins in playoffs past and can’t recall coming up against another group that is tougher to put down. He called them “resilient.”
“You know, that’s not something you can say about every team but against these guys I’ve got to give them credit: They always battle back, they always find a way to persevere,” said Subban.
A feeling of inevitability hung over the first overtime period. This felt like a Bruins victory in the making; it was more of “when” than “if.”
However, the longer the game stretched out, a few hints of doubt appeared. When Carl Soderberg redirected a shot that danced across the goal-line and stayed out you couldn’t help but wonder if it just might not be the Bruins night after all. When a point shot got behind Price and hit Brad Marchand’s skate it seemed like Montreal might be able to pull off a minor miracle.
The Habs then drew a penalty as the first extra session came to a close and another shortly after that expired. This was a moment that called for an unlikely contributor. Briere, who saw the lowest ice time on the team, responded with a faceoff victory that went to Markov and then Subban.
Rask couldn’t believe that the final shot eluded his normally reliable glove hand. The Finn referred to his play as “shit” after seeing his career record fall to 0-9 against Montreal in this building.
“It was just a typical overtime goal,” he said. “Somebody’s mistake, right? And it was mine.”
In the final analysis, it all amounted to just one of the four victories needed to move on. Montreal is still the underdog in this series, but it provided the rough outline of a formula that could bring more success. If Price outduels Rask, if the Habs power play continues to shine, if Subban can be a difference-maker…
Yes, the Canadiens are right in the thick of the playoff action, all right. And it looks like it will be a wild ride.