Paradoxically enough, the 243-day gap between meetings was enough to lessen the luster of the Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens rivalry, only to subsequently buy time to restore the matchup’s magnetism.
Had their 2013-14 season series commenced on Nov. 10, the time-honored tangle would have had an uncharacteristically uninspiring vibe for the general observer. Entering that day’s action, the newfangled Atlantic Division had Tampa Bay, Toronto and Detroit occupying its top-three seeds.
Granted, the fourth-place Bruins trailed the Lightning by only three points, but the sixth-seeded Canadiens were on the .500 fence at 8-8-1 and trailed Boston by four points.
It appeared as though all three of the ex-Northeast Division Original Six franchises were paving carry-over roads from the previous May.
The Habs were languishing in a vain attempt to rinse out the vinegar of a five-game letdown against Ottawa. Meanwhile, a mutually physical Boston-Toronto matchup was looking like the new No. 1 feud for people in the NESN, CBC and TSN radius and a dose of new flavor for neutral, national audiences.
What a difference three-and-a-half weeks can make. The Leafs are still gripping their share of relevance, but the Bruins and Canadiens have hustled to the summit of the Atlantic.
As a result, the buildup to Thursday’s bout at the Bell Centre all but gives the impression that the interlude between April 6 and now never happened. Just like Montreal’s 2-1 triumph that night in the final month of 2012-13, this game will figure into a footrace for first place in the division.
The Habs, who have gone 8-1-2 dating back to Nov. 10, entered their Wednesday night game in New Jersey trailing Boston by three points for the Atlantic lead. Their 11-game hot streak elevated them by three divisional slots―virtually two, as they were tied with the Red Wings following Tuesday’s action.
The aforementioned Bolts, Buds and Wings are all stocking steam of their own in this derby as the regular season surpasses its one-third mark. All five teams in question are in the 30-point range with only seven points separating the top seed (Bruins) from the fifth (Maple Leafs).
Ultimately, though, Boston and Montreal are bound to combine for a measure of continental appeal as long as they are both within a competitive group of any size. Because Toronto is the only other ex-Northeast tenant in the reckonable pack of five, it is going to take time for newly intriguing matchups to outright supplant Bruins-Canadiens.
That could by all means happen by the time they collide again on Jan. 30, but the rivalry has at least regained its relevance in time for Thursday.
Besides each team’s slot in the standings, there are relatively fresh storylines surrounding key aspects of the matchup. For at least the short-term future, the faces of the feud’s sustained relevance are shielded by masks.
Going into Wednesday night’s action, Tuukka Rask (1.90) and Carey Price (2.00) were No. 5 and No. 6 overall on the NHL’s goals-against average leadership. With 22 games apiece on their 2013-14 transcripts, they are No. 3 and No. 4 in terms of save percentage (Price at .937, Rask at .935).
Price is collecting collateral for a bounce-back campaign, maybe even a career year, while making a case for a spot on Team Canada’s Olympic roster. He is currently on a personal five-game winning streak and has allowed two goals or fewer in his last eight starts dating back to Nov. 10.
Rask’s game-to-game output has tapered off a tad with a 4-2-1 record in his last seven outings and four sub-.920 single-night save percentages over that span. However, with his own opportunity to represent Finland in February, a showdown with the likes of Price ought to be a booster, if nothing else.
Rask may also benefit from six days of rest leading up to Thursday, having last engaged in game action on Black Friday.
Price and Rask are the beneficiaries of a defensive brigade that collectively constitute one of the two stingiest in the league. The Bruins are first as a team in goals-against per night with 1.96 while the Canadiens match Price’s output with an average of exactly two blinks per game.
Logically, if both parties are on their toes, sustained scoring chances could be scarce, which is not an automatic detriment to entertainment value. As a starting point, consider the prospect of simultaneous shifts featuring Boston power forward Milan Lucic and all-around Montreal blueliner P.K. Subban, each of whom have fostered hot starts in their respective departments.
It is one thing for the rivals themselves to invest maximum passion in their play, which is a natural expectation under all conditions. It is another for the competitors to come bearing comparably competitive personas.
As they commence their season series, that is what the Bruins and Canadiens have in their goalies, aggregate defenses and habitually physical twenty-something skaters. Those are some of the primal reasons why the series opener will play a role in a race that is still early in the process of taking notable shape.
What the teams do not have at the moment is a broad host of certifiable company to percolate a rivalry among rivalries in the Atlantic.
The Leafs have a foundation by virtue of their recent resurgence and from being an established divisional cohabitant with their own storied grudges against Boston and Montreal alike. New neighbors Detroit and Tampa Bay are hanging around and could set their own bases for a legitimate intra-Atlantic rivalry at any time.
Until then, there is no cause to dock the high-ranking Bruins-Canadiens card any points or positions in their sector of the NHL.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com and are through games of Tuesday, Dec. 3