Commentary

Canadiens-Bruins rivalry alive and well this season

Updated: March 21, 2008, 7:14 PM ET
By Jonah Keri | Special to ESPN.com

BOSTON -- "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

Loosely translated, that means, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." Nowhere in the NHL is that phrase more meaningful than in the rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins. And given how thoroughly the Habs have dominated the series, it's probably better said en francais.

[+] EnlargeRoman Hamrlik, Mark Streit, and Alex Kovalev
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Canadiens again got the better of the Bruins on Thursday night in Boston.

About half of Thursday night's crowd at TD Banknorth Garden could have done the translation. As the Habs rolled to a 4-2 victory -- their 10th straight win over the Bruins -- hordes of Bleu, Blanc et Rouge-wearing fans roared their approval.

But maybe even more notable was the way Bruins fans yelled back. After years of uninspiring play by both teams -- especially the Bruins -- Montreal and Boston both are now eyeing playoff berths as the season hits its home stretch. With the stakes as high as they have been in a long time, 17,565 fans of both teams jammed the arena, stirring up much of the drama and intensity that's defined this series in so many classic battles of the past.

"It's crazy here; this is the biggest game we've had in six years," said either Patrick Daly, Mike Morin or Danny Sullivan. It was tough to tell who was saying what, as the three fans in Section 304 all were wearing Bruins foam heads, giddy with excitement and chiming in at once. "The Bruins haven't been good for a long time. ESPN picked them to finish last. I did, too."

To understand the intensity on the ice and in the stands Thursday night, you need only look back on some of the great games these two teams have delivered in the past.

Head back to the 1950s, when the Habs beat the Bruins three times in the Stanley Cup finals. In the 1952 semifinals, Maurice "Rocket" Richard got knocked out in the seventh and deciding game of the series. He returned later in the game to score the winning goal. That game remains famous more than a half-century later, with this illustration of a battered Richard and black-eyed Bruins goalie "Sugar" Jim Henry still resonating with fans of both teams.

The Canadiens retained the upper hand for a few more years, eventually setting up the bloody battles of the 1970s, the golden age of the rivalry. Boston ended a 29-year Stanley Cup drought in 1970, beating the St. Louis Blues in four games on what might be the most famous goal of all time.

The Bruins were even better the next season. Four players -- Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Johnny Bucyk and Bobby Orr -- topped 100 points and earned first-team All-Star honors. Then, they ran into their old nemeses. The Canadiens knocked them out in the first round of the 1971 playoffs, a crushing defeat for a team still regarded as one of the best ever and the first step toward another Cup for Montreal. For Boston, the heartbreaker came in Game 2 of the series. Up 5-1 and apparently on their way to an easy win, the Bruins surrendered six straight goals. They never recovered from that 7-5 loss. If not for that defeat, the Bruins would have had a bona fide dynasty, given their Stanley Cup victory the next season, their second in three years.

The Habs tormented the Bruins even more in the late '70s. Montreal beat Boston in both the 1977 and 1978 finals, part of a string of four straight Stanley Cup victories that solidified the Canadiens as one of hockey's best dynasties.

For the Bruins, the low point of that decade -- and maybe in all of franchise history -- came in the 1979 semifinals. The hard-working, gritty Bruins squared off against the fast-skating, high-scoring Habs, forcing another Game 7 for the ages. Ahead by a goal with less than two minutes left after an amazing play by Rick Middleton, the Bruins were whistled for having too many men on the ice. Guy Lafleur scored the tying goal on the power play for the Habs, who then won in overtime to send Boston home early again.

Coach Don Cherry was fired for the mistake. Nearly three decades later, many old-time Bruins fans still can't forgive Cherry for his error. Ironically, the former coach now is a national hero in Canada, delivering his uncensored commentary during weekly "Hockey Night in Canada" telecasts. He probably would be the country's next prime minister if he ever decided to run.

The Bruins have claimed a few big wins of their own in the rivalry. In 1988, they knocked off the Habs in the Montreal Forum and went on to the Cup finals against the Edmonton Oilers, the last finals series played in the Boston Garden. The height of Boston's dominance in the rivalry started two seasons later. Led by Andy Moog, the Bruins dispatched the Habs in three consecutive postseasons. Hockey-obsessed Montreal was so vexed by the heroics of Boston's goalie that local radio stations started playing a takeoff of Madonna's hit single "Vogue" with derogatory lyrics about him.

[+] EnlargeBobby Orr
Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty ImagesThe Bruins last won the Stanley Cup in 1972 behind the heroics of Bobby Orr.

Flash forward to today.

The teams' styles this season are reminiscent of those of their late-'70s battles. Led by hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara, the Bruins are again a physical team that relies largely on size and strength. Meanwhile, the Habs' best players are a bunch of smaller, fast-skating snipers, with the role of Lafleur being ably played by veteran right winger Alexei Kovalev. Both teams have found success with their respective styles. The Habs are enjoying one of their best seasons since their last Stanley Cup win 15 years ago. The Bruins, after years of struggles under penny-pinching owner Jeremy Jacobs, also have emerged as a contender, overcoming multiple key injuries to position themselves for a trip to the playoffs.

As far as the rivalry goes, though, speed and skill have triumphed over size and grit again lately. The Canadiens had won nine in a row against the Bruins heading into Thursday's meeting. On the night of Orr's 60th birthday celebration, Boston hoped to end the streak.

From the opening faceoff, the scene was electric. Habs fans chanted "Go Habs Go!" only to be shouted down by cries of "Let's Go Bruins!" Up in the nosebleeds, Quebecois French was spoken everywhere. A group of Habs fans held up a sign that read, "Jusqu'a la," with "la" referring to their destination, the Stanley Cup. Bruins fans responded with chants of "Canadiens Suck!" This was Yankees-Red Sox on ice.

After a scoreless first period, Habs fan Yves Lafreniere was disappointed that his team was getting outshot and outplayed. In Boston for the game and Easter weekend, though, he was loving his first trip to the Garden for a Habs-Bruins game.

"It's a great atmosphere, very exciting," Lafreniere said as his questioner conducted his first interview in French in more than a decade. Reflecting on the Canadiens' rise this season, he was happy to report that after a down period, "the city's in love with the team again." As for his seats in the nosebleeds of Section 305, he wasn't complaining. "The tickets are much cheaper here."

Lafreniere and his fellow Habs fans went nuts in the second period. Just more than eight minutes in, Kovalev potted a highlight-reel goal. Skating down the left wing directly below us, Kovalev spun around Chara, then flipped a backhand shot through goalie Tim Thomas' legs. Bruins fans cursed the goal as the latest softie allowed by Thomas against the Habs. Five minutes later, Kovalev outdid himself. Skating the length of the ice, he blew by Boston's forecheckers and steamed over the blue line, only to be met by Chara and Dennis Wideman. Kovalev stickhandled right through the two defenders, deked Thomas and slid in his second goal of the game. (You can see the highlights here.)

The Bruins cut the lead to 2-1 just 27 seconds later on a goal by Mark Stuart, drawing huge cheers from the hometown fans. But the Habs came right back to score two more in the third on their way to the 4-2 win.

With the win, Montreal moved into first place in the East, one point ahead of the New Jersey Devils. Meanwhile, the Bruins held onto seventh, one point ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers, two up on the Buffalo Sabres, three up on the Washington Capitals and four up on the Florida Panthers. With just a few games left for both teams, a one-versus-eight or two-versus-seven playoff matchup is a very real possibility. Montreal holds a 23-7 advantage in head-to-head playoff series. But with postseason games often a tighter affair, the Bruins could pose an interesting challenge for the Habs, 10-game losing streak or not.

Asked what the scene would be like in the Garden if the two teams met up again in the playoffs, our trio of enthusiastic Bruins fans could only shake their giant foam heads.

"Oh, man … it would be like this," they said, gesturing to the frenzied capacity crowd around them. "Only times 10."

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2, and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can contact him here.

Jonah Keri (@jonahkeri) is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available for preorder.