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When the Boston Bruins won their last game of the season against the Devils on the last day of the season they clinched second place and a series against the Montreal Canadiens, their arch rival and chief nemesis.  These playoffs they face Montreal with the stinging memory of a collapse at the hands of the same dreaded Habs two years previous when a much weaker Montreal team ousted them in the first round of Stanley Cup play.


Like a Toronto Argonaut versus Hamilton Tiger Cat dog fight, like a battle royale with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, like a grudge match between the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos, the Montreal Canadiens series against the Boston Bruins is going to rile players, enrage fans and once again prove why this rivalry is one of the best in sports.  For those fans in Habs’ World who would rather eat raw liver over learning about the Bruins during the regular season, here is something of a primer on the team Montreal will face during the playoffs.


The first thing that springs to mind, of course, is the health of star Joe Thornton, the hulking and incredibly talented centre of the top line.  He’s the franchise player, an emerging superstar, and has almost all the skills necessary to lead his team to glory.  As to his injury, all that’s known is that it’s upper body and he might dress for game one.  For the purposes of this writing, the assumption is that he’ll be there and in top form.


The Players


  • Knuble/Thornton/Murray


The 700+ pound monster line is one of the biggest, toughest lines that hockey has ever seen and when these three are on their game, they can devastate opponents.  It’s a wonderful combination of talent with the all-around guy centreing the sniper and the digger; each having abilities that complement the other.  To stop this line it will be key to force them to dump the puck in deep, then ensure that the Hab forwards close the gap to the defence to aid in getting the puck out quickly.  If these three are allowed control of the puck in the Canadiens end, they will dominate the cycle along the boards with size and skill leaving the Habs hoping for a mistake or a superior defensive play.


Another strong point for Claude Julien to consider is to make sure no one wakes up Thornton.  He plays his best hockey after someone has made him angry, waking up to completely dominate games.  Tight coverage from Juneau or Begin is good, but it must be clean and stifling.  Fortunately the Habs have been effective against these three for much of the past couple of seasons, and fans can only pray that this trend continues.


  • Bergeron/Nylander/Samsonov


The first thing to note here is that Samsonov is healthy.  Look back over his last two seasons and you’ll note that he’s been in and out of the lineup more than Saku Koivu.  He’s a very dangerous player and his production is high despite being on the second power play unit.  With rookie Bergeron, who impressed with his lunch box effort and high standard of play, along with recent acquisition Nylander adding a welcome splash of offence, this line looks to be one of the better second lines in the game and on more than a couple of teams could easily be a top line.


It will be interesting to watch how Bergeron responds to the pressure of playoff hockey against the team he grew up despising.  Surrounded by such talent, however, it would seem unlikely that he’ll fade in any way, probably managing the opposite, much like his hated Nordiques always managed against the Canadiens.  As for the other two, they are both highly skilled and attention should be paid in order to leave them minimal space to manoeuvre.


  • Lapointe/Rolston/Axelsson


Rolston has been shooting his mouth off to the press lately, though most Bruin fans would tell you he should concentrate on his sliding game rather than giving sound clips for the Habs to use in the dressing room as motivation.  That said, this threesome is one of the best third lines in the game.  While they may not have the highest quality in terms of shut-down ability, they can put the puck in the net far more than virtually every other checking line.


Critical to note for the Habs, though, is that these three are vulnerable, on occasion, to defensive lapses and the line matched against these three will have to take advantage of every opportunity. 


  • Donato/Green/Zamuner


Travis Green is a nasty pest who has the ability to get under the skin of his opposition and he proved that in the last couple of games against the Habs as he went out of his way to put Koivu off his game.  This line is as effective a fourth line as you’re going to see in hockey, as two of the three are probably third liners on almost every other club.  When the regular checking line has problems, Boston can easily switch things up and put out these three in a shut-down role and not a lot will be lost in terms of defensive ability.


Of note, the lines written here are tentative, subject to both injuries and the whim of the coach.  One of the impressive things about this lineup is that there’s a lot of mixing and matching that can occur.  The players on the fourth line can play on the second line if needed, and there’s plenty of talent from all four lines to create an effective checking line.


Defensively, the Bruins have a solid, if not impressive six.  While they could not be considered better than the defensive line of the Habs, they are certainly not worse.  It’s a solid mix of puck moving ability along with guys who can hit, and this time around, unlike the playoffs two years ago, they have defenders who can skate.


  • Gonchar/Slegr/Boynton


These three players are all effective at moving the puck quickly and effectively.  In the case of Gonchar, he’s proven himself to be one of the best offensive defensemen of the era and his acquisition at the deadline was brilliance for the Bruin back line.  What’s interesting to note is that, while Slegr might be somewhat deficient, the other two are more than effective at defence as well; certainly Boynton is a solid all-around player.  Gonchar has underrated abilities defensively and his stats this season are reflective more of where he played the bulk of his year.  While he may not be the best defender, he knows what to do and how to position himself to advantage.


It’s among these three that the biggest difference can be seen from the defence of two years ago – now they have guys who can skate with the smaller, but significantly faster, Montreal forwards.  Whereas two years ago Montreal ran the Boston defence ragged, now the Bruin defence will be much more able to keep up and stifle an attack.


  • Gill/McGillis/O’Donnell


They’re slower, less skilled, but can put a player through the boards when they have the inkling.  These are the three stay-at-home types who will clear the crease and punish the Habs forwards who try and get too fancy in the Boston zone.  While they don’t skate as fast and are prone to making the occasional timing area when making hits along the boards, they do clean up very well and will make opposing forwards pay for lingering in the slot area for long.




The man between the pipes for the Bruins is rookie of the year candidate Andrew Raycroft.  In fact, should he not get the trophy then a serious injustice has been done as his performance this season has been nothing short of spectacular.  He’s literally taken the Bruins on his shoulders and carried them to this point.  If there was one huge Achilles Heel for the team heading into this season it was the potential goaltending troubles.  Their hope was Felix Potvin, an extremely streaky goalie who’d been shuffled around the league a few times.


Raycroft stepped in and played like a seasoned veteran, ignoring all pressure and back-stopping the team to an impressive defensive record.  His numbers don’t lie, either.  He was near the top in most goaltending categories this season and it’s hardly because he has a stellar defence in front of him.  In fact, for the first time in a very long time, the Bruins can say they finally have a real number one goalie who can get them places.


For those who believe that, being a rookie, he’ll crack under the pressure, while it’s possible, his actions this year in the face of pressure seem to indicate that there will be little difference in his game once the post season begins.  Praying for a goaltending collapse on the part of the Bruins is a futile gesture this season; no Dafoe holding the fort.


The Special Teams


In the regular season, Boston managed only a 17th overall rating on the power play which, considering the talent level, was quite low.  However, that has changed in recent weeks after the acquisition of Gonchar who is now the quarterback of the man advantage and has the team playing much better.  Boston will thrive when they get a man or two in front of Jose Theodore and use the point men to launch shots at the net, particularly if the men in front are from that first line.  While it’s likely that Theodore will manage to save the initial shots, the onus will lie on the defence to clear the rebound before guys like Thornton and Murray swoop in to hammer it home.


Once again coming in at 17th overall, the Boston penalty kill was hardly brilliant on the season.  They don’t have a bad crew to kill off penalties, however, much of the problem lies in them being run ragged as the Bruins are known to take undisciplined penalties and therefore be short a man far too often.  If Montreal is to win this series, they must take advantage of this.  Second and third efforts as well as continually being in the face of the Bruins in order to draw those penalties is critical to any success on the part of the Canadiens.


The Coach


His name is heard in nominations for the Jack Adams so it should be fairly obvious that Sullivan knows what he’s doing and executes his plans effectively.  The Bruins had a tough start to the season, but since the start of ’04 they’ve been a very strong club.  He isn’t going to be out-coached in any series, that much should be certain.  His main challenge will be keeping the Bruins focused and playing with energy on a consistent basis as well as maintaining a level of discipline.  If he can manage those things, this team could eventually go very far in the playoffs.




The Bruins were merely good in the confines of the Fleet Centre.  Perhaps it’s the wide open spaces and the fact that the building has much less ambiance and flavour than the old Boston Garden, but for whatever reason, this club plays better when they aren’t unnerved by the empty seats at home.  On the other hand, Boston is a terror on the road, having won 23 of their 41 games.  It will make for an interesting match up as the Habs are much better at home than they are on the road.


There is, of course, a stigma attached to any Habs/Bruins series.  No matter how much players try to deny it, history will remain a factor, even if only a small one.  While realistically on the ice there’s little similarity between the teams today and those two years ago and for the rest of the storied rivalry, if the Bruins get down by a game early, thoughts of ‘not again’ may briefly flash in their minds.  As professional as players are, there’s no doubt that superstition plays into the games, particularly at playoff time.  This Bruin team is better than Montreal and should win the series, of that there should be little doubt, however the mental game will play a big part, as it always has in the past and as it will again in the future.  Boston has to quell those inner demons.


Finally there’s the Thornton factor: not whether or not he’s playing, but whether or not he gets points.  If the Habs can keep him off the scoresheet, they’re looking much better.  This Boston team isn’t nearly as effective when Thornton is held pointless and for good reason.  When your leader isn’t being your leader, it’s tough to follow; when your leading point getter isn’t producing, that’s a lot of offence that goes missing.


And there is a quick look at the Bruins and what they have to offer.  It will be an intense series, an emotional series, and in all likelihood a low scoring series.  There will be big hits, spectacular goals, even better saves, and probably a few games going into overtime.  It will be a roller coaster ride for fans on both sides, but in the end the hockey fan wins no matter the outcome.  The Orange Llama has come in with his prediction, and while Montreal fans may disapprove, he sees the more talented Bruins taking this one in six games – whether Thornton plays or not.