Hands were shaken; things were said.
Ever since May 14, when the Canadiens eliminated the Bruins from the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 3-1 victory at TD Garden in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Second Round series, culminating with some menacing words from Boston forward Milan Lucic in the handshake line, the next meeting between the longtime rivals has been circled on the calendar of all involved.
That includes the Canadiens players.
"Obviously when the season starts you’re not looking too far down the road, but now that it’s here, with what happened last year, I think both teams are going to be really excited for it," Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher said. "I think any time Montreal and Boston are playing each other there’s a little more to it with the rivalry that comes with it. I’ve only been a part of it for … this is my third year and I fully understand what the games are like. They’re a little more intense. There’s a little bit of hatred between the two teams. But there’s a lot of respect as well."
The game Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, SN360) is almost like a perfect storm. The Canadiens will play their first game in front of their fans at Bell Centre after opening the season with a 3-1-0 road trip. They’ll face a Bruins team that struggled at the start but which is coming off a 3-2 shootout win at the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday.
The subplot of Lucic facing Canadiens forward Dale Weise and defenseman Alexei Emelin, the targets of his words in the handshake line five months ago, adds to the intensity of what is one of the greatest rivalries in North American professional sports.
Emelin will return to the lineup after missing two games with an upper-body injury, but there is no guarantee Weise will play Thursday. After the morning skate Thursday, Canadiens coach
"What situation are you talking about?" Weise responded in jest when asked about it Wednesday after practice. "It’s just gotten blown way out of proportion, so I’m not going to talk about it anymore."
While the fallout from the handshake line may have grabbed most of the attention publicly, that Game 7 victory in Boston had a far greater significance in the Canadiens locker room than a spontaneous, heat-of-the-moment outburst.
The win showed the Canadiens they could play their brand of hockey and still beat the Bruins, something few people thought they would be able to do.
For years the Canadiens and much of the Eastern Conference has been chasing the Bruins, a model organization that consistently has produced excellent teams for years, winning division titles four times in six seasons.
Five months ago the Canadiens felt like they caught up.
"It showed that there’s not one way to play," Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty said. "It’s so crazy that every year people talk about, ‘This is what you have to do to win.’ They base it off of either a team that’s had success or a team that won the Stanley Cup that year. The thinking was always that you’ve got to be big. You’ve got to have big defensemen, you’ve got to be big down the middle. But we kind of opened up some eyes being a smaller and faster team with fast-paced play. In the playoffs that’s what it is; it’s all speed. So I think that’s opened up some eyes. Obviously we haven’t changed everyone’s opinion on the right way to play, but we have a way we want to play, and if we’re able to execute I think we’ll have a lot of success against a lot of good teams."
Pacioretty and several of his teammates spoke openly after that Game 7 win in Boston that they felt disrespected by the Bruins, and to a lesser extent by the hockey world in general, perhaps because of that style of play that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But he feels that changed during the summer when he began to hear more complimentary things about the Canadiens style of play and its effectiveness.
"I think we were a fun team to watch last year," Pacioretty said. "You look at the Kansas City Royals right now, it felt like them in some sense where everyone was pitching in, everyone was buying in. People want to say we don’t have a superstar here, we don’t have [the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ Sidney] Crosby or whatnot. But I feel sometimes that can prohibit a team from gelling as one. Everyone feels they have an important role on this team, whether it be first line, fourth line, starting goalie, backup goalie; everyone contributes. I think that’s when you feel good about yourself. You feel like you’re really helping the team. I think that’s why we’ve had success."
The Canadiens early-season success was taken down a notch in their previous game, a 7-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning to close that four-game trip. The Canadiens swept the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs last season, providing Tampa Bay with extra motivation to send the Canadiens a message, which they did.
Now the Canadiens face a team they eliminated from the playoffs for a second straight game and the Bruins, considering their rivalry with the Canadiens, should be that much more motivated to prove a point Thursday.
"They’ve obviously been looking forward to this game for a while, same thing as Tampa, and that showed on the scoreboard," Pacioretty said. "We’ve got to make sure this isn’t the same result."Tags: game, player, show, sports