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Dan Shaughnessy

In a season of change, it was perfect timing all around

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 17, 2009
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The Red Sox are in last place, the Patriots are out of season, and the Celtics are out of luck.

This is the Bruins' chance to take back the sports night in an age-old hockey town. It's time for the local skaters to step up, which is exactly what happened at (what do we call it this week?) Boston Garden last night.

Thirsty for their first sip from the icy chalice in 37 years, the suddenly formidable Bruins kicked off their Cup quest on Causeway Street with a 4-2 Game 1 victory over their ancient rivals from Montreal. The Bruins effectively won it on a booming slap shot by Zdeno Chara with 8:45 left.

It was the first playoff game of any kind in Boston since late October, when the Sox came back from a seven-run deficit in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against Tampa. And it was worth the wait.

Our town was badly in need of some good news. Celtics playoff hopes were crushed early yesterday when Doc Rivers went on the radio and announced that Kevin Garnett is done for the season. At dinnertime, New England sports fans got a jolt of perspective and fear when it was learned that eternal kid Danny Ainge (only 50 years old) had suffered a mild heart attack and was recovering at Massachusetts General Hospital.

It was time for the Bruins to do what they used to do on a regular basis: make everybody feel good.

The Bruins delivered. It was 2-2 midway through the third, but just when it was looking like we might be in for a dreaded overtime, Chara - the biggest man ever to lace 'em up in the NHL - blasted a slap shot past helpless Habs goalie Carey Price. The Big Slovakian, you might remember, set a record with a 105.4-mile-per-hour slapper at the All-Star skills competition in Montreal in January. This one might have been a mere 100, and poor Price looked like Bob "Beetle" Bailey staring at a Rich Gossage fastball.

"The monster was waiting back there with his stick touching the roof," said Bruins center Marc Savard.

"See an opening and go for it and try to shoot it," Chara said softly.

"He's our heart and soul, and I can't say enough about him," coach Claude Julien said. "I like the way he led our team tonight, and it's quite appropriate he scored the winner."

Phil Kessel potted an empty-netter in the closing seconds, then there was a predictable melee at the buzzer, but Chara's power-play goal goes down as the top moment of the postseason's first night.

It was loud during the pregame - much like last April when the Bruins outfought Montreal in Game 6 of a first-round series they wound up losing at the Bell Centre. Veteran crooner Rene Rancourt brought his "A" game for both national anthems. Bruins players fidgeted ferociously while Rancourt delivered the goods. Shawn Thornton looked like he would come out of his skates. The packed house was no less inspired and drowned out every word after "banner yet wave . . . "

The Bruins struck first on a goal by Kessel, who was benched in the middle of last season's series. Kessel banged home a shot from in front of the crease after the puck was poked away from Price.

A minute and a half later, it was 2-0 when David Krejci took a pass from Michael Ryder and backhanded it past Price.

Garden fans got a little full of themselves for a few moments, but the hilarity was short-lived as the Habs cut it to 2-1 on a goal by Christopher Higgins.

It stayed that way until the 18th minute of the second period, when the Canadiens tied it on a sensational one-timer by Alex Kovalev. The Bruins had just killed a penalty and looked safe to take a 2-1 lead into the third when Montreal's veteran winger blasted the puck into the only 3-inch corner (top right) that wasn't covered.

The Canadiens had exactly what they wanted: a 2-2 game after two and a chance to win. It was a little shocking for the Bruins and their fans. The Canadiens applied more body than they had during the season when they were dominated by the Bruins. Boston went 5-0-1 against Montreal during the regular season and expected to continue its dominance as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

"You have so much eneregy before the game, and then I think we were a little flat for those first two periods," said Savard. "But I thought in the third we picked it up. It wasn't our best game, but we got the result we wanted."

Never discount history in these matters. It was the immortal John McNamara who once said, "I don't want to hear about history or chokin' or any of that crap," but any time the Bruins meet the Habs, it's hard to toss out that little 45-year stretch in which the Canadiens won an astounding 18 consecutive playoff series against Boston.

History has not been the Bruins' friend in recent decades. In addition to the 37-year Cup drought, there is the embarrassing fact that the franchise has won only one playoff series in the last 15 years. Hard to get your hockey arms around that one.

But now they have a team that won more regular-season games (53) than any team since the Orr-Espo marauders of 1971-72 and they give Boston its lone hope for a spring championship.

It's the Bruins' time, and in Game 1, they seized the day.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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