Underdog Habs seek silver lining
BOSTON — The Boston Bruins are heavy favourites to beat the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs which begin Thursday at the TD Banknorth Garden.
The only disagreement seems to be how many games the Bruins will need to send the Canadiens off to an early vacation. The most common opinion has the series over in five games. Some folks believe it will go six games. Nobody expects Montreal to force a seventh game.
But there’s a reason why they play — beyond the fact that each game generates about $2 million in revenue. Upsets are the lifeblood of sports and here are some of the keys to a Canadiens victory:
The goalies: Coach Bob Gainey is goingtorideCareyPriceeventhough Jaroslav Halak has better numbers. Price’s play has deteriorated in his second season and he’ll have to bring his A game. If he doesn’t, the prognosticators will be proven right. At the other end of the ice, Tim Thomas led the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage. But the 35-year has only played one playoff series in the NHL and that was a seven-game loss to Montreal last season.
The big line: Gainey assembled a line with his top offensive players — Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay — and they combined for 12 goals in a six-game stretch which saw the Canadiens go 5-0-1. Gainey noted Wednesday that one line isn’t going to do it, and said the impact the big line had on other players would be important. That’s a way of saying the Canadiens need secondary scoring if the Bruins shut down the top line.
Be tough: The Bruins have a physical team and that means the Canadiens have to prepare to be hit and to hit back. The presence of tough guy Georges Laraque should curb the Bruins’ enthusiasm but Laraque can’t be an empty threat. That means that, if Milan Lucic or Shawn Thornton takes liberties with the Montreal players, Laraque has to put aside his reluctance to fight players who aren’t true heavyweights.
Be healthy: The Canadiens can’t afford injuries and they have to hope that Andrei Markov returns to the lineup before this series ends. He’s the Canadiens’ best defenceman and his presence has a ripple effect down the line.
The special teams: The Bruins have the fourth-best power play in the NHL while the Canadiens ranked 13th. The important thing to remember here is that the Canadiens were in the bottom five in the NHL before Mathieu Schneider arrived from Atlanta. Patrice Brisebois, who will get the nod over rookie Yannick Weber as the triggerman on the Canadiens’ No. 1 power-play unit, said the key will be to make adjustments as the series goes on. “Last year, we had the top power play in the league and (Boston) shut us down in the playoffs,” said Brisebois.
Win a game early: When asked about the importance of winning one of the first two games in Boston, Brisebois said the goal was to win both games. That might be unrealistic but the if the Canadiens can win a game in Boston, it could create some doubt since the Bruins have lost 24 of their 31 playoff series against Montreal.
Be confident: Kovalev said the Canadiens have to believe in themselves and that they can’t get down if things go badly. The Canadiens can take some heart from their last game in Boston. They rallied from a 3-1 deficit and went ahead 4-3 before losing in overtime, 5-4.
Play the underdog: Gainey said that he would rather be the overdog than the underdog because then the season would have been a lot more fun. But there’s an advantage to being the underdog because the expectations are lower. There will be more pressure on Boston, which ran away with the Eastern Conference playoff race and posted a 5-0-1 record against the Canadiens. Montreal won all eight regular-season games against Boston last season but the Bruins took the Canadiens to seven games in the playoffs.