The elephant in Bruins' room: history
The lingering image is of burning police cars in the streets of Montreal, streets filled with broken glass and embarrassing YouTube images flashed across the globe.
That was the result of the last playoff meeting between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins, a tense, seven-game standoff that emerged from a series in which the Habs were initially expected to easily roll over the B's but in the end barely survived.
Maybe that's what the flames engulfing the squad cars represented -- the realization that even in victory, the Habs' Stanley Cup chances had gone up in smoke. After nearly blowing the series, the Canadiens seemed defeated in victory, not nearly as intimidating afterward as they'd been going into the playoffs.
A year later, the shoe is very much on the other foot as the two storied clubs meet in postseason play for the 32nd time, a playoff rivalry that has occurred more often than any other NHL springtime matchup. Only the Red Wings and Maple Leafs are close, having met in 23 playoff series.
This time, the pressure is all on the Bruins, and if they don't treat the Canadiens like so much snow to be brushed off their skates, well, it will be the 2009 Eastern Conference champions who will suddenly appear more vulnerable than imposing.
Even the Bruins seem to understand that anything short of an impressive performance against the Habs will make them seem weaker.
"They're going to have absolutely nothing to lose," said Boston coach Claude Julien, who once coached the Canadiens and understands the emotional underpinnings of this rivalry. "We've got a lot to gain. We've got to make sure we don't disappoint."
With 53 victories this season, the Bruins have put together the most wins of any Boston team in the 37 years since the B's last won the Cup. In that time there have been 11 championships won in Boston, including six by the NBA's Celtics, three by the NFL's Patriots and two by the Red Sox.
Now, a terrific NHL regular season in what some are calling "Sportstown, USA" has the Bruins and their fans dreaming of joining in the championship fun.
"It was hope going into the season," Boston GM Peter Chiarelli told The Boston Globe. "But that hope became expectation based on our regular season."
And wouldn't it be just like those Montrealers to ruin it all. After all, they've sure done it before.
Of the 31 previous playoff meetings, the Habs have won 24, a dominant margin. Included were three occasions on which the Bruins, like this season, were enormous favorites, but ended up being erased by the invaders from the north.
In 1971, the Bruins put together 57 victories, but could defeat Ken Dryden only three times and were eliminated. Thirteen years later, the Bruins' 104-point season made them seem impregnable against a 75-point Montreal squad, but the Habs swept the series with unknown Steve Penney in net.
In 2004, a 104-point Boston club was seeded second in the East and pulled ahead 3-1 in another clash with Montreal, only to blow the series.
So as bad as Montreal has looked in recent weeks, and as easily as the Bruins seemed able to handle the Habs at times this season while losing only one of six regular season meetings, don't dare think the Canadiens can't win this series despite what all the prognosticators -- including this one -- might tell you.
History tells you they can, and this is a decades-old rivalry in which history seems more telling than any other.
"Why play 82 games?" Montreal captain Saku Koivu said, chuckling, when it became clear the Canadiens and Bruins would meet again this spring. "Why don't we go straight to the playoffs and play Boston?"
That said, this was, at one time, a season that was supposed to be all about the history of the Canadiens, with a march to another Stanley Cup the glorious conclusion to their centennial season.
Instead, it turned into something very different along the way, almost as if the hockey gods were annoyed by the way in which George Gillett's Habs seemed determined to cash in on their history by coming up with one different alternate jersey after another. It was presented as a celebration of the team's history, but instead it looked like the Habs were grasping at every merchandising dollar they could possibly rip from the hands of their most ardent supporters.
One jersey, a barber pole-striped number, drew unhappy reviews all around.
"I saw those sweaters and I nearly barfed," said Boston goalie Tim Thomas.
If the karma was sour, the events that followed were even more so. Instead of a happy ride from October to the playoffs, the Canadiens suffered through a season in which players were publicly named for their connections to alleged gangsters, team stalwart Alexei Kovalev was sent home, the town exploded with Vincent Lecavalier trade rumors around the All-Star Game, coach Guy Carbonneau was fired (inciting the usual linguistic issues that are always boiling just below the surface in Quebec) and local boy Martin Brodeur used the Bell Centre and the Habs as a final stepping stone en route to breaking Patrick Roy's all-time goaltending wins record.
In the final days of the season, after many hollow denials, it became clear Gillett, the first American to own the team, was putting the Habs up for sale, a case of dreadful timing if there ever was one.
If the Canadiens represent hockey royalty, this was their annus horribilis. For a time, it seemed they might not even qualify for postseason play, but they managed to outdistance the Florida Panthers. Now, in a week that marked the 97th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic -- yep, the Habs had already been in business three years when that tragic tale unfolded -- the Bruins surely seem the iceberg lying in wait for the Canadiens. Or might it be the other way around?
"How do we beat them four times?" asked Montreal GM and coach Bob Gainey rhetorically. "I don't think about how we beat them four times. How do we beat them once?"
What Gainey was suggesting was that his team needs to do the old one-game-at-a-time routine, but it was almost as though he was setting up the series as even more one-sided than it seems, as though it was Lake Placid being played out in 2009, with the U.S. seemingly, hopelessly outgunned by the awesome Soviets.
So you've got the B's thinking they've got to prove themselves worthy of being Cup contenders, and you've got a Montreal team that will apparently be thrilled if the team bus can find its way to the arena for tonight's opener.
Sounds like a recipe for an upset in some ways, doesn't it?
On paper, it seems like no contest, particularly with Montreal forced to do without the services of its best defenseman, Andrei Markov, against a Boston team that has scored five or more goals on 21 occasions this season. Goalie Carey Price has been better of late, but he had an awful .878 save percentage against the Bruins this season during a campaign in which he went from golden boy to tarnished hero.
"I just stopped caring what people said," Price told The Globe and Mail when asked about his late-season improvement.
The Bruins, you may recall, had issues of their own to deal with when the clubs met last spring. Marc Savard just wasn't himself as he recovered from a broken bone in his back, Patrice Bergeron seemed tantalizingly close to returning from concussion problems but never did appear, and winger Phil Kessel seemed so lost that trade rumors followed him around for months afterward.
This time around, Savard and Bergeron are healthy, although the latter missed the final two games of the season with a bruised foot, and Kessel is coming off a 36-goal season. Winger Michael Ryder was a disappointment for the Canadiens last season against the Bruins to the point that he became a healthy scratch, but now he's with Boston and is seemingly reinvigorated after a 27-goal season.
You know, just like '71.
What will likely decide the series, if the Habs prove to be competitive at all, is how the emotional and physical element of the competition plays out. The Bruins seemed to enjoy pushing the Canadiens around this season, and certainly Montreal's season was damaged in mid-November when hulking Milan Lucic took on defenseman Mike Komisarek in a pointless late-game fight that left Komisarek on the shelf with a shoulder injury.
When they met again in the last week of the season, Lucic and 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara seemed to take great glee in chasing down Komisarek, and it will likely be the dynamic again when the series begins, although the Habs will try to counter by dressing enforcer Georges Laraque. In that game, however, the Bruins took a ton of penalties and blew a lead before winning in overtime. So if they get carried away with establishing physical superiority, it could come back to haunt them.
Otherwise, the table appears set for an overwhelming Bruin victory, right?
Except, there's all this history ...
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
The Stanley Cup playoffs kick off Wednesday. Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and the rest of our NHL team preview the first round: