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Fighting chance tonight?

Bruins bracing for a visit by Canadiens

Montreal’s Scott Gomez (right) took umbrage after the controversial hit by Zdeno Chara on Max Pacioretty at the Bell Centre March 8. Montreal’s Scott Gomez (right) took umbrage after the controversial hit by Zdeno Chara on Max Pacioretty at the Bell Centre March 8. (Associated Press/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / March 24, 2011

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WILMINGTON — Like most hockey players, Zdeno Chara understands The Code.

On March 8, Chara drove Montreal’s Max Pacioretty into a stanchion near one of the benches at the Bell Centre. Pacioretty fractured his fourth cervical vertebra and suffered a severe concussion. Montreal fans, no strangers to hysteria, dashed to call 911 and insisted that Chara be dragged out of the rink in leg irons. A day later, the province of Quebec howled when the NHL didn’t suspend Chara.

Tonight is the first Bruins-Canadiens game since Pacioretty broke his neck. The Code would dictate that the Canadiens seek on-ice justice for an incident that eluded off-ice discipline.

Asked if he expected a physical response, Chara said, “I don’t know. We’ll see.’’

Chara was on the other side earlier this season. On Oct. 30, late in a 4-0 Bruins win over Ottawa, Chris Neil dropped the mitts with Dennis Seidenberg following some net-front jousting. It was a one-sided game. Neil, a fisticuffs veteran, took on a non-fighter in Seidenberg.

So on Nov. 13, the next time the Bruins played the Senators, Chara challenged his ex-teammate. They fought and Chara gave his approval to Neil for accepting the invitation.

It might not be so straightforward tonight.

At 6 feet 9 inches, 255 pounds, Chara is the biggest and perhaps strongest player in the league. On Oct. 25, 2007, in his first fight as a Bruin, Chara took on 6-6, 228-pound David Koci of Chicago. Chara made a mess of Koci’s face, inking up the TD Garden ice with his opponent’s blood.

Had the Pacioretty incident happened last season, when noted rumbler Georges Laraque was still on Montreal’s roster, a throwdown might have taken place. But this year, the Canadiens don’t have an enforcer. If they feel retribution is required, the task might fall to Travis Moen, who gives up 7 inches and 47 pounds to Chara. Other candidates include Ryan White and Paul Mara.

“Z can take care of himself,’’ said Bruins winger Milan Lucic with a smile. “If they want to go after him, good luck. I don’t think he’ll need my help.’’

An alternative would be to get in the faces of other Bruins. That route, however, didn’t go so well last month.

On Feb. 9, the Bruins not only scored an 8-6 win, but beat up the Canadiens. When the rubble cleared, six fights had taken place. Shawn Thornton made quick work of Roman Hamrlik. Johnny Boychuk laid a pasting on Jaroslav Spacek. Gregory Campbell jackhammered Tom Pyatt. The only fight that didn’t go the Bruins’ way was David Krejci vs. Benoit Pouliot. That scrap ended with Pouliot landing a straight right on Krejci’s chin.

The Canadiens would be wise not to trigger a repeat brawl-fest.

“You’re going to have ask them that question,’’ Bruins coach Claude Julien answered when asked if he anticipated rough stuff. “Retribution would be coming from them, wouldn’t it?’’

In all likelihood, the emphasis for both teams tonight will be getting the 2 points. The Bruins, in third place in the Eastern Conference, are 3 points ahead of the sixth-place Canadiens. There is a good chance the teams could meet in the first round of the playoffs for the third time in four years.

It would not be a favorable matchup for the Bruins. This season, they have won only one of the five meetings. The Canadiens have been quicker, more skilled, and more opportunistic than the plodding Bruins.

Despite their injuries — Montreal will be without Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges for the rest of the season — the Canadiens have been the better club head-to-head.

In that March 8 meeting, the Canadiens laid a 4-1 smackdown on the Bruins at the Bell Centre. Late in the game, a frustrated Lucic jabbed repeatedly at Pouliot, trying to persuade the Montreal forward to fight.

“It seems like every time we play Montreal, they play their best game,’’ Lucic said. “I don’t know what it is. It seems they almost always get the bounces.

“You can’t just say they’ve had the luck. They’ve definitely worked hard to get those four wins out of us this year. It’s always a challenge playing against them.

“Guys seem ready. Especially looking at [Tuesday’s win over New Jersey], guys seemed ready. We definitely have to have guys step up because it’s going to be a playoff-like atmosphere.’’

Given the last two meetings, the NHL will be on high alert for tonight’s game. The mildest of infractions is sure to be whistled. One reason the Bruins bested the Devils Tuesday was New Jersey’s uncharacteristically undisciplined play.

The Bruins will have to play a heavy game against the smaller and speedier Canadiens. But they’ll have to do so within reason.

“Being physical is part of our game,’’ Lucic said. “I think our main focus is to build and continue what we did [Tuesday] night. Once we started to get harder on the forecheck and started to be physical, we started to be more successful. It was against a really stingy defensive team. That’s what Montreal is, too.’’

Air Canada, which submitted an angry letter denouncing head shots following the Chara hit, is presumably striving for on-time arrivals instead of altering the NHL rule book. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were not at Ristuccia Arena yesterday. They seem to have more important work to do.

Most important, Pacioretty is recovering well. Pacioretty, whose career appeared in danger following the incident, could dress in the postseason. Chara has tried to contact him several times but hasn’t had any luck.

“I’m glad that he’s doing much better and that he’s probably going to be playing, based on reports of what we’ve heard,’’ Chara said. “It’s good news.’’

One of the Bruins’ leaders had doubts about the degree of Pacioretty’s injuries. In an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub yesterday, Mark Recchi fueled the controversy, speculating that the Canadiens embellished Pacioretty’s concussion to prompt the league to suspend Chara. Recchi emphasized that he was happy to hear of Pacioretty’s recovery.

“He does obviously have a fractured vertebra, but the concussion is obviously really a nonfactor,’’ said Recchi, citing how Pacioretty attended a movie several days after the hit. “In maybe a day or two — maybe a day he felt it — but he was fine a couple days later.

“They were trying to get Zdeno suspended and they embellished it a little bit. In terms of that side, they’re doing whatever they could to get him suspended.

“That was an interference play at worst. The partitions got in the way. I don’t think Zdeno is to blame for that.’’

There is no standard protocol in the NHL on how to classify a concussion. The Bruins once termed them as “Class 1,’’ “Class 2,’’ and “Class 3.’’ They now use “mild,’’ “moderate,’’ and “severe.’’ A player who loses consciousness for several minutes is usually diagnosed with a severe concussion.

The Bruins signed 20-year-old free agent Marc Cantin to an entry-level contract. Cantin is a 6-foot-1-inch, 201-pound defenseman. This season, Cantin had 10 goals, 31 assists, and 78 penalty minutes in 61 games for Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League. Last season, he was a member of the Windsor club that beat Tyler Seguin’s Plymouth squad en route to a second consecutive Memorial Cup. Cantin participated in last July’s development camp at Ristuccia Arena.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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