It was just last season that Montreal was at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, finishing with 78 points. Only two teams in the NHL had fewer points.
So far this year, results are a bit different.
Montreal stands just 1 point behind the Bruins in the Northeast Division, which sets an early-season showdown for first place Wednesday night at the Bell Centre.
“You’ve got to remember, last year they ran into a lot of injuries,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien, citing Andrei Markov and Max Pacioretty. “They had a lot of key guys injured, so they were never able to get their second wind.
“Once you derail, it’s hard to get back on track. They certainly weren’t as bad as the standings showed.”
Now, the team is healthy. The Canadiens have a new coach (Michel Therrien) and a new general manager (Marc Bergevin), and, as Julien said, “They seem to have caught fire.”
And this might be a particularly difficult test, as the Bruins go into Montreal down a few players, with injuries cropping up in the last few days.
“It is definitely a big test, and it’s a good time for guys to step up that wouldn’t be having a chance,” said defenseman Johnny Boychuk. “Playing there is always like playing in a playoff-type game, and with the battle for first place, I expect everybody to be going as hard as you can, from our team and theirs.
“It’s going to be a good test for both teams to see how they are. It’s just early in the season, but it’s a shortened season, so you’ve got to get as many points as you can.”
The Bruins have a tough week, with the Lightning, in first place in the Southeast Division, coming to the Garden Saturday. But for now, the focus is on the Canadiens and on creating a bit of space in their own division.
“They’re playing with an edge right now,” Julien said. “They’ve added some bigger bodies but their game is still the same. It’s about speed. It’s about transition. It’s about their attack. That hasn’t changed.
“We’ve got to go in there and be ready. When we’ve gone in there and haven’t done the job that we should against that team, they’ve made us pay for it.”
The Canadiens are coming off back-to-back wins Saturday and Sunday, beating the Sabres and Senators.
“They’re a really fast team, good skating,” said Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. “Carey [Price] is playing really good in net there, and it’s going to be a tough matchup against us.
“It’s fun. The crowd always gets up for those games. It’s good for us, too. Usually they’re pretty entertaining games.”
Not all full strength
Neither Daniel Paille nor Shawn Thornton made the trip to Montreal Tuesday because of injuries, though Julien said he was “very optimistic that they’ll be OK moving forward.”
Brad Marchand, meanwhile, was scheduled to practice with the team at the Bell Centre. He will be a game-time decision.
The Bruins brought up Ryan Spooner on an emergency basis Monday, and he could be used against the Canadiens.
“The skill level is definitely one of the NHL,” Julien said of Spooner. “He can skate well and everything else. Some of the goals he scored were highlight goals. There’s no doubt he’s on the right track. I’d be very surprised not to see this guy play as a full-time NHLer down the road.”
Bumps in the road
In Sunday’s 2-1 win, Montreal was the beneficiary of a seemingly bad call against the Senators, when an Ottawa goal was erased because of an interference call on Jakob Silfverberg. That came on the heels of a call going for the Bruins when Toronto’s Nazem Kadri was called for interference on Rask Saturday. Boston also lost a goal on “incidental contact” between Marchand and Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer in the same game.
“To be bluntly honest, it was questionable on Tuukka,” Julien said. “And then it was obviously extremely questionable on Brad.
“It’s not just us, it’s all around the league. They’ve really tightened up. Maybe they’re sending a message to everybody to kind of stay away from the goaltenders, and once we start being a little better about that, they might soften up on those calls.”
Rask said he hasn’t felt that the referees are calling the games any differently. He acknowledged that the interference calls are some of the more difficult ones to make.
“I don’t know if they’re keeping a closer eye on those, but calls are being made during the play,” Rask said. “Sometimes they’re questionable, sometimes they’re not. I know I got called out that I was flopping around.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.