The Montreal Canadiens made a statement to the Eastern Conference on Sunday night by erasing a third period deficit to defeat the rival Boston Bruins 4-3 in what was the team's most impressive victory of the 2013 season.
"It’s a big win for sure," said Canadiens captain Brion Gionta after the game. "It’s a first-place game, two good teams going at it, and it was a back-and-forth game. But going into the third down by a goal, we showed a lot of character in that third period."
Even though they lost most of the physical battles, the Canadiens were able to keep their composure and take advantage of their scoring opportunities in the third period. Now they sit atop the East standings with a 14-4-4 record.
Let's look at what we learned about both teams following Sunday night's thrilling game at TD Garden in Boston.
One of the primary reasons for the Canadiens' success this season is their improved play defensively.
Having veteran defenseman Andrei Markov healthy and in the lineup has helped tremendously, and the addition of Francis Bouillon has given the Canadiens blue line some much-needed toughness and grit, as well as another good penalty killer.
As the chart below shows, Montreal has gotten better in a lot of defensive categories compared to last year.
|Stat (NHL Rank)|
|Year||GAA||Hits||Takeaways||Plus/Minus (Skater)||5v5 GA|
|2011-12||2.61 (11th)||1,840 (17th)||468 (26th)||-13 (20th)||150 (17th)|
|2012-13||2.3 (6th)||521 (9th)||132 (14th)||15 (3rd)||31 (7th)|
Montreal did an excellent job of defending the Bruins in the third period of Sunday's game by winning puck battles, blocking shots, clogging the shooting lanes and not letting Boston's skilled players have too much time and space with the puck in the attacking zone.
With a deep blue line that has a tremendous balance of offensive/defensive players, the Canadiens will be a tough team to score on this season, especially with star goaltender Carey Price playing like a Vezina Trophy candidate.
The Bruins' second line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin is playing as well as any trio in the NHL right now.
This threesome has been together for over a year, and they have fantastic chemistry in the attacking zone. This was evident on Boston's first goal of Sunday's game (see video) when Marchand battled for the puck after the Canadiens won the faceoff, flipped it to Bergeron, who passed to Seguin for the goal.
"We’ve been clicking pretty well this year and I think tonight was another example of that," said Marchand. "We had a lot of really good opportunities, another one there at the end and it would have been nice if a few more would have found the net but that’s how it goes.
Bergeron, Marchand and Seguin rank first, second and fourth on the team in scoring, respectively, and each player performed at a high level for the Bruins last week (four games).
|Feb. 26 through March 3||G||A||P|
Not only did Boston get a lot of scoring from this line, Bergeron, Seguin and Marchand also rank first and second on the team, respectively, in plus/minus. This trio gets it done at both ends of the ice on a consistent basis, which makes it very difficult for opposing teams to shut down.
The Bruins are fortunate to be receiving stellar production from their second line because the third line of Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Chris Bourque has not made much of an impact offensively this season.
The Canadiens were 15-20-6 on the road last season, and this lack of success away from the Bell Centre was one reason why the team finished 15th in the Eastern Conference.
With its victory over Boston on Sunday night, Montreal improved its record to 6-1-2. The only three teams in the NHL with one or fewer losses in regulation on the road this season are the Canadiens, Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks.
"We came in confident this year. We have been jelling together and playing hard," said Canadiens forward Brandon Prust.
"We have confidence and we have a swagger, and I think that’s what you need. You need to have that confidence that you are going to come in here and win every night. We have been doing that for most of this season."
The Canadiens have given up just 20 goals on the road this season, which is the third-fewest total in the NHL. Last season, Montreal ranked 12th in goals allowed on the road.
All championship-caliber teams find ways to win on the road against the top teams in the league, and through the first 22 games of the season, the Canadiens have proven to the league and themselves that they can go into anyone's rink and leave with two points.
Last year's Canadiens team probably would have crumbled under the pressure of trailing by a goal to the Bruins in the third period on the road. That won't happen this year with Montreal having a deeper, more experienced roster than it had in 2011-12. It also helps that captain Brian Gionta is healthy and in the lineup on a consistent basis because he is a tremendous leader. Gionta missed 60 games last season due to injury.
Andrew Ference is in the final year of his contract, and since he has not played well this season, it's possible that the veteran defenseman could be available at the trade deadline.
Ference has the fourth-best plus/minus rating out of the six defenseman who have played in 17 or more games for the Bruins this season. He is also the only blueliner on the roster with zero goals scored (among players who have played in 5-plus games), and he has just four assists through 19 games.
The 33-year-old defenseman has scored just one point in his last eight games, and his defensive play also hasn't been up to par. Ference's 16 giveaways are the second most on the team and his 27 blocked shots rank fifth among the Bruins' top-six defensemen.
In Boston's two games over the weekend, Ference was one of the Bruins' worst players with zero points, 10 PIM and mediocre play in the defensive zone.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli could look to trade Ference for a top-nine forward who would provide additional scoring for the team's third line.
If Ference was dealt before the deadline, Boston could call up Torey Krug, who was the AHL's rookie of the month in February. The 21-year-old defenseman has 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists) in 49 games for the Providence Bruins this season.
Replacing a veteran like Ference with a young player such as Krug would be a gamble for Chiarelli and the Bruins, but it's a move that should be made.
After a thrilling seven-game first round playoff series during the 2010-11 season, the majority of the excitement and intensity normally found in the Bruins and Canadiens rivalry was absent for most of last season.
Montreal's struggles had a lot to do with that, but with both clubs playing like Eastern Conference contenders this season, the rivalry is alive and well again. The physicality, hatred and passion seen in Sunday night's game was evidence of this.
"Those are always the best games," said Prust. "There is a lot of energy in here. They are fun games and the rivalry is kind of ignited again tonight."
The season series between these two teams is tied 1-1, with both clubs winning on the road by a one-goal margin.
With the Bruins and Canadiens battling for first place in the Northeast Division this season, which could be the difference between the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds in the Eastern Conference, expect the next two matchups (March 27, April 6) involving these historic rivals to be just as exciting and intense as Sunday night's game.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. Nick has also covered the Bruins since the 2010-11 season. All quotes obtained first hand or from the Bruins media website.