MONTREAL - The heart of the 2007-08 Bruins has been its box-plus-one defensive formation, which helped the team lower its goals-against number from 285 last season (second most in the NHL) to 215 this season.
The underlying philosophy is to collapse in the slot in the face of danger, preventing opponents from scoring from the middle of the ice.
The alignment was Boston's underbelly last night.
Within a 122-second span in the first period, the middle of the ice in the Boston zone was wider than the Grand Canyon, as the Brothers Kostitsyn took advantage of Boston's stretched-out defense and put two pucks past Tim Thomas before the echoes of "O Canada" had a chance to subside.
The Bruins never recovered, dropping Game 1, 4-1, before 21,273 at Bell Centre to a determined Montreal club that oozed all the elements - speed, skill, grit, airtight checking - of a Cup-ready club.
"I don't think we played well," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "That was the bottom line."
The Canadiens won all eight regular-season meetings, but last night's victory might have been their most complete. They overpowered the Bruins physically, outhitting Boston, 37-25. They won puck battles and used their speed to stay a skate's length ahead of the Bruins. They turned the Boston forwards into peashooters. And they used their home crowd to their advantage.
After the opening faceoff, with the din still rattling in the Boston zone, defenseman Patrice Brisebois wound up for a shot at the right point. Aaron Ward stepped in front of Thomas, blocking the netminder's sight lines.
"The crowd's so loud, he couldn't hear me yell, 'screen,' " said Thomas. "So I never saw the puck until he stuck his foot out."
The puck skimmed off Ward, changed speeds, and caught Thomas off guard. The rebound hopped out front, and Andrew Ference, who had gone too far up the ice, wasn't in position to defend Sergei Kostitsyn, who planted himself in the slot. Once Thomas booted the puck to Kostitsyn, the forward had an easy tap-in 34 seconds into the game to give Montreal a 1-0 lead.
The defensive errors continued several shifts later when Dennis Wideman, reunited with Zdeno Chara, tried to clear the puck from behind his net. Wideman, drifting to Thomas's right, couldn't tell which post Chara was stationed at. Wideman, who looked jittery at the start ("Obviously, a little bit of nerves early," he acknowledged), reversed the puck with a hard rim along the boards in case Chara was at the far post.
"He was on the strong post," said Wideman with regret, "and it went right by him."
The puck rolled to the stick of center Tomas Plekanec, who was positioned squarely against the boards to seal off the clearing attempt. Plekanec looked up, saw a meaty seam open in the slot, and sent a cross-crease pass to linemate Andrei Kostitsyn. The left wing slammed a shot past Thomas at 2:02.
"We've got to be better defensively," Julien said. "When you give up the kind of goals we gave up in the slot area, that's one thing that's our strength - to protect that area and keep play to the outside. But we got dragged out of position and got caught running around. They're a real skilled team. Once they get you running around, they make you pay."
The Bruins got back into the game when Shane Hnidy, drifting toward the Montreal net, put himself in the right spot to tip a one-timer by Ference past goalie Carey Price at 8:34 of the first period. Peter Schaefer had also filled the slot to create traffic in front.
But it was one of the few times the Bruins made life tough on Price (17 saves), as the rookie netminder had clear looks at virtually every puck. As they did too often during the regular season, the Bruins failed to crash the net. The top line of Marco Sturm, David Krejci, and Glen Murray combined for five shots. The Boston power play failed to score on three attempts.
At the other end, the skilled Canadiens showed they can bang, too. The fourth line of Steve Begin, Bryan Smolinski, and Tom Kostopoulos (11 total hits) crashed their way to Montreal's third goal. Kostopoulos, going hard to the net, got a piece of a point shot by defenseman Mike Komisarek that Thomas stopped. But Smolinski, uncovered in the slot, dumped the rebound past Thomas at 5:16 of the second period.
The muck and grinders struck again when Kostopoulos gained position in front, took a behind-the-net feed from third-liner Maxim Lapierre, and found the back of the cage at 7:24 of the third.
"They came out," said Mark Stuart, "and did exactly what we wanted to do."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.