MONTREAL — The comment was displayed three Aprils ago on a storeys-tall banner flapping from the scaffolding of luxury apartments under construction across from Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden: “MONTREAL SUX”
The text of the message was abbreviated presumably because the construction worker ran out of canvas on their dropsheet.
Three springs later, the building is occupied and the banner is gone, but the sentiment remains the same in Boston, the Canadiens and Bruins preparing to face one another in a playoff series for the 33rd time since 1929 — when buildings on Causeway St. didn’t sufficiently scrape the sky to accommodate such large opinion.
The Eastern Conference quarter-final between these two clubs, beginning Thursday in Boston, is a match made in hockey heaven.
Yes, the Canadiens could have drawn Pittsburgh or Philadelphia in the first round. Both would have been excellent opponents.
But the Canadiens vs. Bruins offers something truly compelling. The NHL’s longest-running playoff rivalry is surely its greatest, bookended by a three-game Bruins sweep in 1929 and a four-game Bruins romp precisely 80 years later.
The series ahead will feature more plots than there are in Mount Royal’s cemeteries — or whichever Boston graveyard Bruins championship dreams have been buried by the Canadiens 24 times out of 32.
Just a few talking points from this season alone: Canadiens goalie Carey Price allowed four goals on nine shots in 30 minutes of work on Sept. 22 against Boston, the teams’ first pre-season game. Bell Centre fans booed Price mercilessly. Imagine: their minds seemed to change as the season wore on.
A hit by Boston’s Zdeno Chara severely concussed and fractured a vertebra in the neck of Montreal’s Max Pacioretty March 8.
Six regular-season games, four won by Montreal, had a total of 360 penalty minutes, 187 of them in a single match.
Habs captain Brian Gionta scored in five of the six games. Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, usually uneven at best against the Canadiens, blanked the Habs for the first time in his career for his 25th NHL shutout. Montreal defenceman Hal Gill is a Massachusetts native and he, fellow rearguard Paul Mara and backup goalie Alex Auld have played for the Bruins. Which counts for as much as the fact that Recchi and fellow Boston forward Michael Ryder once played for the Habs.
Stir in the Bruins’ Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand, detested in Montreal but no longer the sharpest thorns for Canadiens fans with Chara’s eagerly anticipated return next Sunday.
For Bruins supporters, there’s P.K. Subban, who scored his first regular-season NHL goal in Boston last Nov. 11 in a 3-1 win. The fabulous rookie defenceman can pretend he’s hearing “Suuuuubban” every time he touches the puck in Beantown.
There remain a few days to crunch the numbers and compare these teams from their helmet decals to the colour of their skatelaces. For now, like the expressive construction worker, let’s use a wide brush to paint what’s ahead.
Many will have you believe the Canadiens would have matched up better in the first round against the Penguins or Flyers. The fact is, you do not and should not play in a bid to choose your playoff opponent. You want to be playing strong, confident hockey heading into the post-season and you take your chances with whomever you have the first dance.
Saturday’s 4-1, schedule-ending victory over the Maple Leafs in Toronto was good for the Canadiens in many ways: a pair of power-play goals; another short-handed from Tomas Plekanec; a perfect penalty kill; solid goaltending by Price that built his momentum, if that was necessary.
A common concern among many fans — fear wouldn’t be too strong a word — remains the demoralizing 7-0 pounding the Canadiens absorbed in Boston the last time these teams met on March 24. Throw that out, as both teams did long ago.
The mismatch was a ridiculous game entirely out of character for opponents whose previous five matches this season were decided by margins of one and two goals twice and once by three. Expect overtime before blowouts.
Furthermore, the Chara-Pacioretty incident is only on the radar of those not playing the game.
Last month’s 7-0 tilt had been billed in advance as Montreal’s chance to exact revenge for the brutal injury their young forward had suffered March 8 at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens had their chance for retribution two weeks later and chose not to goon it up.
The playoffs are not the time to be picking at old wounds. That’s over.
And expect no lunacy like the 187-minute gong show of Feb. 9. Every shift in the playoffs is magnified; every mistake, every penalty is a potential game-breaker.
The series will be as silky as a cinder block, but both teams will (try to) keep things within the limits of whatever hockey law is enforced. As physical as they are, the Bruins are a comparatively disciplined team.
Through the regular season, Boston took 72 fewer minor penalties than the Canadiens — but more than double Montreal’s 35 fighting majors.
The latter stat is irrelevant now, dropped gloves not the best strategy in the post-season.
So here we go. On Thursday, the Canadiens and Bruins will face off for the 164th time in their playoff history.