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Friday, May 16, 2014

Canadiens shed their underdog image in battle with Bruins


When the Canadiens stood eye to eye with the Bruins through seven games of high intensity, top quality playoff hockey, they competed in a battle of equals. This was no story of David versus Goliath, despite the fact that David Desharnais, Daniel Briere or Brendan Gallagher could all have been easily cast as Davids to Zdeno Chara’s Goliath.

As expected, the Boston Bruins pitted their size, depth and grit against the finesse game of the Montreal Canadiens. But this time around, something kind of strange happened.

Any attempts the Bruins made to intimidate the Canadiens, tactics that may have paid off in the past, became almost comical instead in this series. Milan Lucic and Torey Krug beat their chests in an alpha-male goal celebration, Dale Weise responded mockingly in kind. Lucic flexes a muscle on the Bruins bench, Weise responds again.

In Game 5 Shawn Thornton squirted water at PK Subban, an act you’d expect more from a clown at a carnival than a profession hockey player in the midst of a hard-fought series.

Even Lucic’s reaction and comments during the final handshake seem petty and childish in hindsight, an image that wasn’t helped by him referring to Weise as a baby after the incident.

Claude Julien complained to reporters about biased referees, Michel Therrien bypassed the issue in his own press conferences, firing off jokes instead. Julien commented that the Habs were perceived as the good guys while the Bruins were depicted as villains. In a sense he was right, although it didn’t help that a handful of idiots clad as Bruins fans decided to spew racist hatred at PK Subban after the first game.

Credit goes out to the Bruins organization for taking exception to the comments and for stating in no uncertain terms that they were unacceptable from any that wanted to call themselves fans of the organization.

Even with all the antics on and off the ice, the series never turned violent or ugly. Things simply got heated, the way playoff hockey should.

Emotions were exposed, sure, but there was no ugly kneeing incident that cost a budding young defenseman his playoffs and another player seven games worth of suspensions. There were no heads squeezed into the glass from the force of a blindside hit. There was simply incredible hockey, played on the line of order and chaos.

The showdown that resulted was worthy of any battle of titans the Western Conference could muster. It should go down as an equal to many from the golden years of the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry, seven hard fought games featuring some of the most talented players in the world.

This series went the distance not because one team failed to finish the other off, but because there was just that little to separate the two. The first four games each needed either in overtime to settle or saw a goalie pulled and a one goal lead on the line in the final moments. Through those first four games, the teams each won once at home and once on the road, and they split the two OT affairs.

In the end the better team won. But the Canadiens only emerged the better team because they won this series. You could say the Bruins were the favorites at the start of the series, but it would have been wrong to call them superior; that still needed to be proven.  

So if the Bruins could be could be considered Stanley Cup contenders, the Habs have shown they deserve the same deference.

It’s an unusual position for the Canadiens and their younger generation of fans. This was a team after all that’s reached the conference finals just once in the past 20 years, and even then it took a miracle run that was cut quickly short in the third round. The newest generation of fans have come to know a team that seemed to relish the role of the dangerous underdog, a team capable of knocking down, or at least competing with, the giants of their conference.

Now this team demands respect. They demand to be viewed as equals with the league’s elite.

The Capitals and Penguins fell before the Habs in 2010, and with them, three of the game’s greatest scorers. In 2011, the Bruins were pushed to overtime in the seventh game of the opening round after the Canadiens had stolen a 2-0 series lead on the road. And even though the Bruins would go on to win the Stanley Cup that season, the Habs of that era still could not be considered championship material.

This postseason the Habs have clung to the underdog reputation more by default than merit.

When this year’s Canadiens vanquished the Bruins, they did it by holding leads through the majority of the series. They led for over 115 minutes of the final two games and kept their opponent to just a single goal, scored on the power play.

The Canadiens go into the third round having earned the respect that PK Subban knew the team deserved all along. The Canadiens qualified for the playoffs with the same seeding as the Chicago Blackhawks and LA Kings, another pair of contenders. Some of these teams will necessarily be eliminated in the coming weeks, the Kings possibly even sooner, but that doesn’t mean they are not among the elite few that have the Stanley Cup within their grasp.

Even though this team has started to earn respect, they also know they haven’t really won anything tangible just yet. That was made clear by Carey Price, a goalie who looked by no means finished in his post-series interviews. Price conducted himself like a player just reaching the halfway point of his toughest journey.

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