Before back-to-back wins over the Bruins and Hurricanes, the Canadiens had lost four straight. They are 4-6-0 in their last 10 games. Carey Price, once locked into Canada’s starting job for the Sochi Olympics, is 2-5-0 in his last seven starts, including two early hooks.
For all of Montreal’s flaws, the Bruins want nothing to do with the Canadiens once the regular season concludes.
The Bruins strutted into Thursday night’s matchup. They had scored six goals in three straight games.
The Canadiens were without Alex Galchenyuk (broken hand), one of their most creative forwards. Their mismatched fourth line is Daniel Briere between Travis Moen and George Parros, which is like placing a 911 Turbo between a pair of F-150s. Peter Budaj, who hadn’t started since Jan. 8, was in goal.
Budaj wasn’t the only No. 2 to complete the game. Chad Johnson relieved Tuukka Rask at 11:54 of the second, a move that did zero to jack up the Bruins.
“I guess we got bored of winning,” Dougie Hamilton said. “We’ve got to learn from this.”
Including Thursday’s 4-1 dud at TD Garden, the Bruins are 0-4-1 in their last five against their archrivals. Rask and Price are toss-ups. But the Bruins have the stronger shutdown defenseman and the bigger and more balanced four-line attack. Yet this is a matchup the smaller and faster Canadiens are exploiting.
“Usually we’ve found a way to rise to the occasion against these guys,” Milan Lucic said. “For some reason, the last four times we’ve played them, maybe we get too caught up in the rivalry. Our emotions kind of get the better of us to the point where we’re almost stuck in the headlights like we were tonight. We need to find a way to turn this around against these guys. Hopefully, we can do that sooner than later.”
In theory, the Bruins should have few impediments on their way to a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh. The Bruins and Penguins are the two most experienced and complete teams in the Eastern Conference. This season, the power is in the West. Five teams could contend for the Cup: Anaheim, Chicago, St. Louis, San Jose, and Los Angeles.
But the Bruins are wary of a playoff meeting with Montreal or Detroit. Their records may say otherwise, but the Canadiens and Red Wings are bad matchups for the Bruins. When the Bruins don’t play responsibly, their legs look sluggish, which is no way to play against their smaller but sleeker counterparts. The Canadiens played at 4G speed. The Bruins were at dial-up pace.
“We didn’t skate well tonight. We didn’t make good decisions. And we didn’t execute well,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “When you’ve got none of those three things, you’re not going to win too many hockey games.”
Montreal’s game centers on speed. Defensively, they sit back and stuff shooting lanes with bodies. Once the puck is theirs, the Canadiens like to blow the zone. After they gain control of the puck, they peel off the other way with the acceleration of racecars. The Canadiens turn mistakes into goals. The Bruins made far too many errors, starting with their fourth line.
In the first period, Daniel Paille coughed up the puck in the offensive zone to David Desharnais. Before the Bruins blinked, Desharnais’s dish to Brendan Gallagher had mushroomed into a breakaway for Max Pacioretty. Johnny Boychuk tried to cut off Pacioretty’s advance, but the left wing backhanded the puck past Rask to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead.
A second offensive-zone giveaway capped Montreal’s offense. Loui Eriksson, curling off the right wall, tried to hit Carl Soderberg in the high slot. Instead, Eriksson gave Gallagher a gift. After taking Gallagher’s feed and pulling away from his pursuers, Briere snapped a riser over Johnson’s glove at 13:46 of the second to give the Canadiens a 4-1 lead.
“As a defenseman, it’s pretty clear that they’re quick and they move the puck,” Hamilton said. “They’re always moving in the offensive zone. Their D are keeping pucks in and blocking shots in front, too.”
The Bruins thrive on emotion. They play their best when they’re snarling and engaged. They run over opponents, steal the puck, and refuse to give it up. They deliver checks between whistles and are not afraid to joust after the referee raises his arm to halt play. Intimidation and emotional engagement are woven into the organization’s brand.
The Canadiens know this. There have been many times when the Habs have tried to antagonize the Bruins to get their blood boiling. They have a long line of irritants, from Maxim Lapierre to Andrei Kostitsyn to P.K. Subban. The Bruins have been good at turning the other cheek.
There was little resembling emotion in Thursday night’s loss.
“There was nothing. No rivalry, obviously,” Hamilton said. “We didn’t show up. They had a pretty good start and put us away.”
The Bruins were a cup of weak, lukewarm tea. Instigation was not required. The Bruins never got riled up. Teams with 18 goals in their last three games can rally in the third, even down by three. But there was never any pushback.
“Even in the third period, we were hoping to get 20 minutes where we could be a little bit better,” Julien said. “But tonight was one of those nights there was absolutely nothing happening on our side.”