Canadiens-Bruins rivalry lacking allure in recent years

Gary Bettman and Robert Kraft discuss the news that the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will feature one of the best rivalries in the history of sports, Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens on New Year's Day.

BROSSARD, Que.— The Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins have played 729 regular season games against each other and 10 of their 34 Stanley Cup playoff meetings have gone the distance. No other sports teams have met each other more frequently in the postseason, and as a result they have an unparalleled rivalry.

But from the outside looking in, as both teams get set to embark on their 92nd year of playing against each other, the allure of this matchup is far from what it once was or even what it was just two years ago.

Both rosters have changed since they last met in the playoffs, but the central figures that led Montreal to an epic seven-game win over Boston in 2014 still remain.

Defenceman P.K. Subban will stir up TD Garden on Saturday from the second he jumps onto the ice for warm-up. To a lesser degree, Tomas Plekanec will evoke the same reaction. Forward Brendan Gallagher will draw ire from the fans with his first fly-by in the opposing crease, and the very sight of Dale Weise — who scored two crucial goals in that 2014 series against the Bruins — will incite rage among the Boston faithful.

But the contemporary rivalry’s protagonist on Boston’s end, Milan Lucic, won’t be there to threaten Weise’s life as he did from the handshake line after their last playoff meeting. He was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the off-season.

Long gone is enforcer Shawn Thornton, whose water bottle-squirting antics seemingly played a huge role in turning momentum Montreal’s way in 2014. Agitating energy players Carl Soderberg and Gregory Campbell have moved on from that team as well. So has hulking defenceman Johnny Boychuk, whose thunderous body checks and blistering one-timers have belonged to the New York Islanders for over a year.

Defenceman Dennis Seidenberg has been plagued by injury for the better part of two years — his back surgery in September threatens to keep him out until January. And captain Zdeno Chara, suffering with his own injury issues, is questionable to participate when the puck drops in Saturday’s game.

If Chara can’t go, defencemen Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller figure to be the only two that come close to fitting the franchise’s notorious “big, bad” image.

Pesky Brad Marchand remains a player Canadiens fans love to hate, while Quebec’s Patrice Bergeron, who will also suit up, is anything but. And long-time centre David Krejci has always largely been greeted with indifference from Montreal’s fans.

Montreal’s Jeff Petry, Devante Smith-Pelly, Tomas Fleischmann, Alex Semin, Torrey Mitchell and Boston-native Brian Flynn will get their first taste of playing in the rivalry Saturday, and on the Bruins’ side, Matt Belesky, Jimmy Hayes, Brett Connolly, Joonas Kamppainen, Matt Irwin and Zach Trotman will, too.

Lest we forget new Bruins forward Zac Rinaldo, who could easily reignite things between these two teams with his disruptive brand of hockey.

But Rinaldo might be the only one among the newcomers to do so.

This lull in the rivalry isn’t unprecedented.

After nine consecutive post-season encounters between the two from 1983 to 1992, the Bruins and Canadiens went through an eight-year spell where they played just once against one another in hockey’s spring season.

Things picked up dramatically when the teams finally met again for two playoff matchups in the early 2000s. The Canadiens pulled off major upsets over their division-winning rivals from the bottom of the playoff picture in 2002 and 2004 respectively.

Then things died down for the next three years until meetings in back-to-back first-round matchups, in 2008 and 2009, turned up the heat.

But the rivalry really simmered to a boil in the 2010-11 season. The Canadiens won the first three games of the season series before the Bruins punched back in an 8-6 February bloodbath that saw both teams combine for 182 penalty minutes at TD Garden.

It was during their next meeting that the pot boiled over, with Chara smashing a helpless Max Pacioretty into stanchion at the Bell Centre, breaking the Montreal forward’s neck and rendering him severely concussed.

A month later, they met in the first round of the playoffs, where Boston overcame a 2-0 series deficit to eventually knock the Canadiens out in overtime of Game 7.

And then the rivalry died down again in 2011-12, when the Canadiens lost four of six games against Boston as they plummeted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

Through these peaks and valleys, the Bruins never lost their identity, but now they seem hardly recognizable.

“It’s still the Boston Bruins,” said Gallagher Friday. “It really doesn’t matter what the names are on the backs of the jerseys, it’s the logo on the front that brings out that feeling.”

But that feeling has been lacking since the spring of 2014. The Canadiens swept the Bruins in four regular season contests last season, outscoring them 16-6.

The teams enter Saturday’s contest on different wavelengths.

While the Canadiens took a day of rest after beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 in their season opener Wednesday, the Bruins were shellacked in Boston Thursday, losing 6-2 to the Winnipeg Jets.

“These are always special games,” assured Canadiens coach Michel Therrien in anticipation of Saturday’s contest.

It just doesn’t feel like they will be this season.

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