It's finally Thursday and it's finally time: The Bruins against the Canadiens. The B's against Les Habitants. Black and gold against the bleu blanc rouge.
This is my favorite sports rivalry. I'm more emotionally invested in this rivalry than any other in Boston sports (at least since the 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox finally overcame the Yankees). I hate the Canadiens. I hate everything their team stands for (and falls down for). And I hate their fans. This is true, mean, irrational hatred.
With all due respect to the Red Wings, the only way they were going to beat the Bruins was if the Bruins beat themselves. And did so on multiple levels. Even when Tuukka Rask let in a soft goal and the B's played like crap, Detroit barely took Game 1. The Bruins-Red Wings series was by far the least exciting of the 8 first round series in the NHL.
Montreal is different. While I can't say I respect them, I do respect the threat they pose. They're fast and they know how to use that speed. They have a goalie capable of greatness. They have very talented players like PK Subban, Max Pacioretty (39 goals this year), and Bruins killer Thomas Vanek.
In playoff hockey the Bruins usually do a good job of shutting down, or at least minimizing, an opponent's best forwards. Put Zdeno Chara and the Bergeron line on the ice against an opposing top line and keep them from beating you. However, the Canadiens don't rely on a top line for their offense. They rely on guys like PK Subban. Subban and fellow defenseman Andrei Markov were 2nd and 4th on the Canadiens in points this year. That's one reason the Habs are such a matchup problem for the B's. To be fair, PK Subban is a matchup problem for the entire NHL.
Another reason is that the Canadiens can get under the Bruins' skins. When the Bruins feel like the officials aren't calling the game they way they ought to, the Bruins have one reaction: hit somebody. And not when the time is right, NOW. The B's have a tendency to lose their composure and give gift penalties to opponents with post-whistle punches, interference, slashes, et cetera. That can only hurt them in this series.
Montreal isn't as reliant on their power play as they've been in years past, but it only takes one or two goals to flip a close series around. And this will be a close series. Don't give them the extra chances.
The emotions of this series will sway back and forth. There will be tidal waves of frustration and rage, floods of good play and bad. The difference between winning and losing might be who plays composed even when they're mad, and who forces the other team into making a heated mistake.
Some things I'd like to see from the Bruins, apart from composure:
Brad Marchand either scoring or helping others score. It's been 11 games since his last playoff point. Tuukka Rask has more points (1 assist) in those 11 games than Marchand has. Marchand is a top 6 forward, he's paid like a top 6 forward, he needs to play like a top 6 forward.
Milan Lucic needs to be a freight train that stays on the tracks. Don't derail for the sake of sending a physical message. Don't remove yourself off the ice with unnecessary penalties. That's what Montreal wants.
Don't take Montreal's speed for granted. That cross-ice passing lane that seems open, their speed will close it like a bear trap. See what I did with that pun there?
Rask needs to be exceptional at critical moments. Not just good, exceptional. There will be breakaways, there will be power plays, Rask's job is to make timely saves. Giving up a goal when it's 1-1 in the 1st period is not the same as when it's 1-1 late in the 3rd.
Special teams need to remain an advantage. I don't expect the Bruins' power play to continue at the 38% clip it produced at in the Red Wings series. It does need to continue to produce goals, and to pressure Carey Price and the Habs for 2 minutes. No easy kills for Montreal. Wear them out. This series will be a battle of attrition.
The Bruins need more production 5-on-5. They only scored 6 even strength goals against Detroit in 5 games (14 total, 6 on power play, 6 even, 2 empty-netters).
This will be an exciting, emotional roller coaster of a series. Moments of unparalleled exultation along with periods of deep dread and despair. And all of it hangs in the balance with each game, each period, each shift, each pass.
My prediction on these extremely difficult series to predict: Bruins in 7.