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On Hockey

Poised to deliver KO punch

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / April 21, 2009
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MONTREAL - The Bruins have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. Perhaps their best chance to win one in the past 20 years, the greater number of which have been anything but great.

If they pull it off this year, 37 years after winning their last one, it is difficult to imagine that they will be faced with a greater physical torrent than what the Canadiens tried to bury them with here last night in the first period. Les Glorieux, their emotions spiked and their bench backed by reserves that ran 21,273 deep - right up to the Bell Centre ceiling - came out ferociously from the opening faceoff.

The Habs skated first to every loose puck, pounded everything in sight (pick a Boston sweater number, any sweater number), and for the opening 12-15 minutes looked as if they would power their way right back into the middle of this first-round series.

"Sort of a deja vu thing," said veteran defenseman Aaron Ward, remembering that the Habs battered the Bruins in a similar fashion here last year in the opening two games of a first-round series. "Because of that, we understood what was coming.

"And in a weird way, that's kind of calming . . . you know it's coming, it's there, and every one of their hits, with the crowd behind them, you know they're going to react like it's the hit of the year."

Eventually, the Habs would land 21 hits in the first period to only seven by the Bruins. No, not a night when the disparity could be explained away by some funky US-to-Canada conversion rate. The Habs were pounding them, left and right and center and in all three zones. But the Bruins took the hits, maintained poise, did not get suckered into retaliatory hits, smacks, or face-washes, and headed to their room with the score tied, 1-1, after 20 minutes.

"It's a race to find your identity in the playoffs," noted Ward. "And then it's a marathon to maintain it."

Three games into the postseason, and three victories logged over the CH, the Bruins can point to the win here as the one that firmly established their postseason countenance. They knew they had the talent to score (witness: the 9-3 edge in Games 1, 2). They knew they had discipline, as proven through 82 games, October to April.

Now they know they have perhaps the most important element, a teamwide physical toughness and mental stamina to withstand being fed into the meat grinder, while at the same time generating those scoring chances and not being goaded into dumb penalties.

Overall, it is talent and strength that allows a club to blend those elements into a winning brew. But it also says a lot about coaching and a team's willingness to heed the simple message: take the shot, ride out the storm.

On his way out of the building, ex-Bruin defenseman Stephane Quintal, attending the game as an interested and informed spectator, spoke glowingly about the Bruins.

"Every time, every shift, their centers are in exactly the right spot on the ice," marveled the affable Quintal. "And their defensemen, they get the puck and, bang, make the right pass. Impressive. Really impressive."

The Habs looked as if they might motor away with it when Christopher Higgins sniped in a wrister from near the left faceoff dot with 11:52 gone in the first period. Nothing like a goal to make a club feel all the banging has been worth it. Potentially more deflating for the Bruins was the fact that goalie Tim Thomas typically flags that kind of shot with ease. The lead in the bank, the Habs followed with the same punishing, incessant hitting.

"I guess you have to tip your hat to them there," said Shawn Thornton, who prefers the hitting game. "We knew it was coming and we talked about pushing back. But, hey, easier said than done in this barn. You can't even hear yourself think out there.

"We've been disciplined all year, so that helps. Contact is a part of the game, and it's one of the best parts, I think, and [the Canadiens] did a great job of feeding off the energy in the building. Good job to them. Next time we'll have to do a better job of pushing back."

Had it not been for Phil Kessel's goal with 1:25 left in the first, when he tipped in a quick snap from the blue line by Dennis Wideman, the Habs would have felt like one engaged, legendary franchise after 20 minutes. Instead, they left the ice, after all that toil and labor, yet again unable to distance themselves from the Bruins.

As things turned out, their 6:43 stretch at 1-0 would stand as the only lead time they have owned in this series.

"After seeing it last year, that's about how I expected them to come out," said Thomas, who has surrendered only five goals in three games. "Maybe there were a couple of more crazy bounces than last year, but . . . we were prepared for everything."

Tomorrow night, faced with elimination, the Habs undoubtedly will come with more of the same. How daunting for them to know their postseason existence now rests in their ability to run the table, rattle off four wins, against the club that handled their best shot to the jaw.

"Well, it's a seven-game series for a reason," noted Thomas. "We have to be prepared to sacrifice just as much the next time."

Right now, the next time looks like the last time for the Habs.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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