FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It goes without saying that the Winter Classic is unique in every way, but it’s worth noting that this year’s game between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins bore a striking resemblance to many of the other 632 regular season games these teams have played against each other over the course of the NHL’s longest standing rivalry.
The Canadiens, who beat the Bruins for the 358th time, did it with skill and speed. They scored on five of the 30 shots they put on Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask’s net, and they kept their cool when things got rough towards the end of a game they put out of reach halfway through the third period.
Playing rough has always been essential to the fabric of the Bruins.
Their plan against Montreal has typically revolved around limiting speed and skill by forcing the Canadiens into the trenches. It hasn’t worked nearly as often as they would’ve hoped.
“I love seeing that,” said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty. “[Matt] Beleskey—I was skating off the ice once—chopped me. It’s funny; we’re worried about the two points, we’re not worried about getting caught up in that stuff.”
Beleskey did more to bait the Canadiens into losing their cool. He registered five of the 20 hits the Bruins had in the first period.
But Beleskey and his teammates managed only three shots in the opening frame. They trailed by a goal less than two minutes into the first period and trailed by two after 22 minutes.
Frustration got the better of the Bruins, as it has over so many games these teams have played against each other. It’s gotten the better of them in all but one of their last nine games against Montreal.
The Bruins just haven’t learned from their mistakes.
As for the rest of us, here are the lessons Friday’s classic provided:
Gallagher balances Montreal’s lineup
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien tried every line combination you could think of in Brendan Gallagher’s 17-game absence from the lineup.
Therrien couldn’t find anything to stick with as the team dropped 12 of the games they played without Gallagher, averaging less than two goals a game over that stretch.
By contrast, with a healthy lineup through Montreal’s first 22 games, Therrien coached them to the league’s best record without having to do much tinkering at all.
“There’s always chemistry that you’re looking for,” Therrien said. “And one thing that we know with the lines we put together at training camp and we started the year with, we get that chemistry as a team.”
They are the lines Therrien got to revert back to due to Gallagher’s participation in the Classic. The coach reunited Pacioretty (one goal, one assist) and Tomas Plekanec (two assists) with the diminutive forward (one goal, one assist), got Tomas Fleischmann, David Desharnais (one goal) and Dale Weise (one assist) back together, put Paul Byron (two goals) back on a line with Torrey Mitchell and Lynwood, Mass., native Brian Flynn (one assist) and kept Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk and Daniel Carr on a line.
“Gallagher’s presence puts everyone in the position they’re supposed to be in,” said Desharnais.
It was the 19th time in 23 games Gallagher’s played in this year that the Canadiens scored three or more goals. They accomplished that feat four times in his absence.
Canadiens goaltender Condon has memorable homecoming
It was Condon’s second win in his last nine starts, and one he’ll cherish for the rest of his life.
Condon, who grew up 20 minutes from Gillette Stadium, beat the Bruins in front of countless friends and family members that were spread among the 67, 246 people who attended the Classic.
“Yeah, Bruins, Habs, Gillette Stadium, New Year’s Day, I don’t think you could script it any better,” Condon said of the game he labelled the most special one of his life.
“When the final buzzer ran, I looked around and just tried to take as many mental photos as I could and just try to remember this feeling,” said Condon.
The win wasn’t his only parting gift from Foxborough. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick signed the back of his Winter Classic mask.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure anything that Tom Brady touches turns to gold,” said Condon. “Hopefully got some of his mojo on my helmet there. I’m a huge fan of his, huge fan of this organization, and I’m just happy to pay respect to them on the ice.”
Marchand and Krejci notably absent from Bruins
Leading Bruins goal-scorer Brad Marchand (15) was handed a three-game suspension Thursday for a hit he put on Senators defenceman Mark Borowiecki in Tuesday’s 7-3 win over Ottawa.
The suspension deprived the Bruins, who were already dealing with an injury to leading point-getter David Krejci (33).
Forward Loui Eriksson, who took Marchand’s spot next to Patrice Bergeron on the Bruins’ top line, played over 23 minutes and only managed two shots on net.
Beleskey, who played in Krejci’s role, was Boston’s best skater in the game.
But even though Beleskey scored his team’s only goal and finished plus-1, he couldn’t carry the load all on his own.
Rask cursed against Canadiens
The Bruins goaltender dropped to 4-15-3 lifetime against Montreal after losing the Classic.
Despite allowing the game’s first goal just 1:14 in, Rask rallied to keep the Bruins in the game.
But the pressure Montreal put on him was overwhelming.
“We couldn't seem to find our game,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “And we know we have challenges, but we didn't want to use that as an excuse and we shouldn't.
“But they came out really hard. They came out well. They seemed to be on their toes. And they had us on our heels early.”
Habs recapture Atlantic Division lead
Montreal is now three points up on Boston, who sits in third place in the Atlantic with three games in hand. They also passed the Florida Panthers for top spot in the division.
“It’s going to be tight to the end of the year,” said Therrien of the race in the Atlantic.
Only five points separate Montreal from fifth-place Ottawa in the Atlantic Division.