The Fu Manchus have grown in. With the cuts, bumps, bruises, and stitches of a violent playoff series, the Canadiens are beginning to look like desperadoes, dangerous and unpredictable individuals who are not to be trifled with.
They arrived in Boston yesterday feeling loose, confident, on a roll. As they should be. They have outplayed the Bruins in five of the six games so far. Had they not gift-wrapped Game 4, they would be home healing their aches and bruises and preparing to tangle with the Tampa Bay Lightning at the end of the week.
Instead, there's the little matter of a date with the Bruins tonight, the culmination of a one-day sports feast: the Red Sox and Yankees at Fenway Park, the Marathon, and finally, the Canadiens and Bruins in Game 7 of their Stanley Cup playoff series at the FleetCenter. Then, the Canadiens fervently hope, it will be on to Tampa and Round 2.
The Canadiens have come back from the dead (or at least a 3-1 deficit in this series) because they are clicking on all cylinders, because every player is doing his job, and because coach Claude Julien has had an answer for every problem that has cropped up. But if there has been a defining moment in this series, it came at 16:40 of the second period at the Bell Centre Saturday night.
Steve Begin, who pumps so much energy into a game that he should be doing battery commercials, tried to hit Boston's Patrice Bergeron near the penalty box, but Bergeron fell before he got there. Begin tripped over him and went mouth-first into the boards; even before he could wriggle out from under the stricken Begin, Bergeron had blood on his helmet. There was Begin on his knees, hearing a few boos from the Bruins fans in attendance as he bled profusely. Since Mike Ribeiro's writhe in Game 3, no one wearing a Canadiens uniform, not even Begin, was above suspicion.
Begin stayed down for perhaps a minute, then got up and skated off the ice, holding a towel to his face. In the clinic, doctors went to work. Begin lost a tooth and his incisors had perforated the skin under his lip. It took 30 stitches to close the gash, with Begin cursing and urging them to hurry up.
When he returned to the ice to begin the third period, he was wearing a full facemask -- but the important point was that he did return.
"When I can't play," he told reporters Saturday night, "I want to eat a chair." The French idiom, loosely translated into English, means: "I'm climbing the walls."
"That was a great inspiration," Julien said yesterday. "Even when he came into the room, we had a reaction for him, to make sure he got an honorable mention. I don't know how I'm going to hold him back [tonight]."
"Do you want to hold him back?" Julien was asked.
"Not in this situation, no."
Begin's was not the only instance of toughness displayed by the Canadiens in this series. Jason Ward, crunched into the boards in Boston in Game 5, appeared to suffer a shoulder separation (a.k.a. "upper-body injury" in the silly euphemisms of the playoffs) and did some of his fastest skating of the playoffs as he bolted across the ice and through the gate toward the dressing room rather than crumple to the ice.
Even the much-maligned Ribeiro just grins when asked if the Bruins are trying to work him over. "I love it when people are trying to hit me," he said. "I like it when it gets dirty out there."
The tabloid columnists and the dimmer fans in Boston can sneer all they want. The Bruins are facing a tough bunch in the bleu-blanc-rouge. These Canadiens are bigger, stronger, physically tougher, mentally tougher, more talented, and better coached than the team that upset Boston in the first round two years ago. They have won two straight games in impressive fashion at a point when most observers, including their own fans, expected them to collapse in the wake of the strange goings-on at the end of Game 4.
They have Yanic Perreault, who never complained while sitting out the first two games, now not only playing but earning promotion to the second line with Ribeiro and Michael Ryder and winning the game's first star Saturday. They have the Saku Koivu line soaring with Alex Kovalev the leading goal scorer in the playoffs. They have the steady Craig Rivet logging what seems like hours on the ice and Jose Theodore rounding into playoff form.
They have Old Mo & The Ghosts on their side. Ninety-five years of tradition, 24 Stanley Cups.
Best of all, from their perspective, all they need to do is more of the same, while Boston has to get Joe Thornton going and coach Mike Sullivan has to calm young goaltender Andrew Raycroft.
Everything, in other words, seems to be tilting the way of les glorieux. But the Canadiens know all too well that these things can turn on a dime and give you a nickel change. A big hit, a fluke goal, a bad penalty, and suddenly you're on the front nine wondering what hit you.
That, it says here, is not going to happen. The Canadiens came up off the canvas Thursday night in Boston. Tonight in the same arena, they will finish off Thornton and the Bruins and shift their attention to Martin St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Lightning.