Mike Babcock did not consider Brendan Smith’s Game 2 tangle with Zdeno Chara a reflection of intelligence.
The next day, the Red Wings coach pulled the situation into a location familiar to a hockey player: the bar. In such surroundings, noted Babcock, if you encounter a beautiful girl on the arm of a brawler, you don’t fight the behemoth to win her attention. You play pool.
Michel Therrien would disagree. The Montreal coach’s philosophy would be to splash a drink in the guy’s face, jab him with a pool cue, jam some peanut shells down his pants, and say naughty things about his mother. Amid the resulting mayhem, when the police lead the giant away in leg irons, that’s when you make off with his lady.
The Red Wings turned the other cheek. They had no interest in jacking up the Bruins’ blood pressure.
The Canadiens, on the other hand, will make it a point of being the itch to the Bruins’ skin in the second round of the playoffs.
“It’s more about controlled emotions,” said Boston coach Claude Julien. “It’s making sure that the rivalry is what it is, but that your game remains under control. I think that’s what’s going to be the big challenge for both teams in this series.”
This is the way it’s always been. The Canadiens have the upper hand when the smoke billowing from the Bruins’ ears makes their sticks irrelevant. The Bruins’ emotions do them no good when they result in repeated trips to the penalty box.
During the regular season, Montreal went on the power play 279 times, 11th-most in the league. Defenseman P.K. Subban, who excels at goading opponents into penalties, is the PP quarterback. He can steam shots from the point or distribute the puck to Max Pacioretty, Thomas Vanek, and David Desharnais, his teammates on the first unit.
Even if they’re not scoring on the power play, the Canadiens would be best served putting the Bruins a man down. Repeated penalty kills tax their best players, including Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Loui Eriksson. They keep offensive weapons such as Milan Lucic and Carl Soderberg, who don’t kill penalties, from gaining five-on-five rhythm. As with most teams, angry hockey does not necessarily translate to smart hockey for the Bruins.
This is one way the Canadiens can make the second round competitive.
The Bruins prefer to be emotionally engaged. But they also want to play level-headed, efficient, and methodical hockey. They hum like an assembly line when they roll four units and three defensive pairings with the purpose of controlling the puck, hounding their opponents, and stubbornly playing their game.
Among the Bruins’ best assets are experience, composure, and professionalism. Those qualities, combined with their talent and their depth, make them the favorites to roll the Canadiens.
Tuukka Rask is atop his game. Rask let only six pucks slip past him in the five-game dismantling of Detroit. He was square to shots. He attacked to steal away angles. He recovered to brick up the net on follow-up attempts. In the rare moments when things got squirrelly, Rask exhibited his athleticism for money saves.
Rask, however, minimized the head-shaking saves. His teammates did most of the heavy lifting. Chara was a mountain in the defensive zone. His young blue-line mates retrieved pucks quickly and raced them out of danger. The forwards gummed up the neutral zone to slow down the Wings’ attack.
None of this should change against the Canadiens. Chara will match up against Montreal’s first line of Pacioretty, Desharnais, and Vanek. The Canadiens will try to use Pacioretty’s speed and skill to stretch out the Bruins. Vanek will be a rover down low, where he’ll slip into openings and poke pucks toward the net. But Chara, perhaps with help from Bergeron’s line, should keep Montreal’s top line from exploding.
Tomas Plekanec, Montreal’s second-line center, usually performs well against the Bruins. He is a skilled and experienced pivot who plays with intelligence and bite. The Bruins will roll out Matt Bartkowski and Johnny Boychuk against Plekanec and linemate Brendan Gallagher.
Like many of Montreal’s forwards, Plekanec and Gallagher are small and quick. If the Bruins give them too much space, the Canadiens will use their speed and skill to launch their attacks from the neutral zone. As always, whoever marks center ice as their territory will have the upper hand.
“We were mediocre against them during the year, but they’re a team that has given us trouble historically, so it will be a challenge,” said general manager Peter Chiarelli. “Much is said about their size and speed, and allegedly that’s what gives us problems.
“I think that’s part of it. I think it’s just sometimes you just don’t have success against a team. Having said that, that applied to Detroit. You see what happens with that.”
What happened was that after a Game 1 throat-clearing, the Bruins slipped into their rhythm. They managed the puck efficiently. They put it into the areas where they overwhelmed the Wings: behind the defensemen, in the corners, and along the walls. The Bruins wiped out whatever advantage Detroit had in speed and skill by playing keep-away from the Wings’ burners.
When the Bruins didn’t have the puck, they set mouse traps in the neutral zone. The Bruins used their size and defensive efficiency to lean on the Wings. Detroit coughed up the puck in center ice. The Bruins got it back. And away they went.
The Canadiens are better in goal and on defense than the Wings. Carey Price is sharper than Jimmy Howard. The Canadiens have two trustworthy defensive pairings. Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will butt heads with Lucic, Krejci, and Jarome Iginla. Subban and Josh Gorges will square off against Bergeron’s line.
But the Bruins’ matchup ace will be the No. 3 line. The third liners chewed up Brian Lashoff and Jakub Kindl the entire first round. They should be able to control the play against Francis Bouillon, Mike Weaver, and Douglas Murray, the three possibilities for third-pairing responsibility.
The Bruins’ depth ended the Wings’ season. It’s Montreal’s turn to experience the same outcome.