It's hard to talk about last night's game featuring the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens without discussing the ugly hit by Zdeno Chara on Max Pacioretty. But, for the sake of keeping this article focused on the game itself and not the hit, I covered my thoughts on the hit in another article.
With a ton of anticipation in the air, the teams took to the ice last night in what seemed more like a playoff matchup than a regular season game. The Bruins, brimming with confidence from their 8-6 beat down of the Habs a month ago today, had a certain swagger to them before the game, talking about how the Canadiens instigated the problems last game and how they were a bunch of divers.
But the Canadiens came ready to play hockey and had no intention of getting caught up in any Boston goonery.
Once the puck was dropped, both teams were all business, focusing on the task at hand. That was until Johnny Boychuk went for an open-ice hit on P.K. Subban, narrowly missing the Canadien's knee.
In response, Ryan White—inserted in the lineup in place of Tom Pyatt—set the tone for Montreal by going right after Boychuk, dropping the gloves, taking the instigator penalty and standing up for one of the Habs' top players.
That play seemed to buoy White's focused teammates, who went to work shutting down the Bruins offense, ignoring Boston's attempts to goad the Canadiens into fights and overall playing some of their best hockey of the season.
Lars Eller got the Habs on the board when he drove to the net and potted a Paul Mara rebound to make it 1-0. Eller was back at work less than 10 minutes later, roofing one over surprise starter Tuukka Rask from in close for a 2-0 Habs lead.
The Canadiens power play took over in the second with Brian Gionta trickling his 24th of the year past Rask, followed by a James Wizniewski bullet to make it 4-0, 15 minutes in.
It was at that point that the Bruins' frustration began to show and, as a result, they started to create more post-whistle scrums and scuffles. But the Habs, clearly focused on their mission of beating the Bruins on the scoreboard, just skated away, increasing Boston's frustration.
That was when the ugliness happened.
Max Pacioretty, who has been a thorn in the Bruins' sides for a few games now, chipped the puck past Chara and was about to skate past him with speed when the hulking Bruins defenseman decided to ride him into the boards.
Chara gave Patches a shove with his forearm at the last second, sending his head into direct contact with the metal post that holds the glass separating the two players' benches.
Pacioretty went down in an unconscious heap and took so long to be carried away on a stretcher that the refs called the period with 15 seconds to play.
After that, the rest of the game didn't seem to matter very much and all thoughts were on Pacioretty and his well-being.
Boston continued to goon it up in the third, but the Habs, leading by four goals, had no reason to get sucked into the Bruins' reindeer games and just skated away.
There was a great moment when Nathan Horton was in rookie P.K. Subban's face, trying to get him to drop the gloves. But Captain Gionta showed his leadership by tapping Subban on the shin pad with his stick and verbally telling him to leave it alone.
The result was more frustration for a Bruins team that is starting to look more and more like a group of thugs with each game. At this rate, they'll be giving the Flyers a run for their money in the goon department by the end of the season.
Final score—4-1, Canadiens.
Habs scorers: Lars Eller (6, 7), Brian Gionta (24), James Wisniewski (8)
Bruins scorers: Milan Lucic (29)
Three stars: 1. Lars Eller, 2. Carey Price, 3. Max Pacioretty
1. You See? Ryan White Should Be in the Lineup
Ryan White, who for some reason has a difficult time staying in the Habs lineup, was inserted in yesterday's game, likely for his grittiness, toughness and willingness to drop the gloves.
Having been scratched the last few games in place of Tom Pyatt, you knew that White wanted to make an impact.
And make an impact he did.
Only 3:11 into the game, with P.K. Subban carrying the puck through the neutral zone, Boychuk decided to take a run at the Canadiens defenseman. While it was a fair play by the Bruins player, he came dangerously close to a knee-on-knee hit on Subban and White took exception to it.
Immediately after Subban had dodged the potentially deadly hit, White went straight after Boychuk, with the pair dropping the gloves. Not only did White stand up for his teammate and show that the Habs weren't going to be pushed around, but he also put a pretty good beating on Boychuk.
And to show how much of a pro he is, White gave Boychuk the "good-job-buddy" tap on the butt before skating to the box.
This kid is a gamer and should be in the lineup on a regular basis because he makes the Habs a better and tougher team to play against. Fisticuffs aside, White makes the David Desharnais line much more dangerous, and that can only help Montreal win more games.
2. Lars Eller Is Starting To Break Out
Early in the season, we had a round-table discussion on The Franchise weekend morning show (the Team 990), and I was asked who my choice was for breakout player of the year. I picked Lars Eller and said that while fans were upset about the Jaroslav Halak trade, they would come to love this player by the end of the year.
Now I'm not one to toot my own horn, but I actually said that, and until a few weeks ago, I thought that ship had sailed!
Well, not so fast, it seems, as Eller is slowly becoming one of the most consistent players on the team.
Since he was united with Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen, the trio has 18 points and a plus-seven rating over seven games. Kostitsyn also has a seven-game point streak going, in which he has at least one point per game.
Montreal also has six wins and one loss during that span.
Eller looks really good at center with a bona fide scorer on his wing in Andrei Kostitsyn, and what is amazing about him is how, just like Max Pacioretty, he seems to be getting better and more confident with each game that passes.
Last night, he was the trigger man on the Habs first two goals, driving to the net to pot the rebound on the first and going roof-daddy on Rask from in close on the second.
His speed, skill and vision are the straws that stir the drink on that line and, almost surprisingly, Eller is also showing that he has a physical side too.
Checking in at 6'2" and 192 lbs, Eller will surely continue to fill out his frame and will probably peak at around 210 to 215 lbs. That being said, he is already throwing his body around on a regular basis.
Last night, he finished the game with three body checks—none more beautiful than his wrecking-ball act on Dennis Seidenberg—and was using his size to fight for position in front of the net and knock players down in all three zones.
With Eller and Pacioretty getting better all the time, they will both be players to watch come playoff time.
Well, at least Eller will be, as I'm fairly certain that Patches won't play another game this season.
3. Defensive-Zone Coverage
You've got to hand it to Jacques Martin, because he really knows how to prepare a team to play. While he might drive fans crazy with his seeming inability to make adjustments during a game, you can't fault him for the way he prepares his team to play before the puck is dropped.
Last night, Montreal came out of the gates ready to play—not fight—but play and win.
Focused, fast, aggressive and intense, the Canadiens were not intimidated by the Bruins and largely ignored any attempts by Boston to draw them into a physical game.
Instead, Montreal simply focused on playing hockey.
The shots were pretty even at 31-26 for Boston, but they didn't tell the tale of the tape, as Montreal did an excellent job of shutting down the front of the net and keeping the Bruins largely to the outside.
The result was a lot of frustration from the Bruins players who, by the middle of the game, looked like they didn't know what to do to get back in the game.
The Habs showed themselves and fans that they can win against the best in the league if they play to their strengths, which are speed and skill, rather than getting caught up in the physical stuff.
The win is the Habs' fourth in five games against the Bruins this season, so it is clear that if they stick to what they do best, they can skate with and beat the best in the league.
4. Montreal Got the Job Done with Its Special Teams.
As has been the case far too often this season, the Habs got themselves into penalty trouble at a point where they were clearly in the driver’s seat.
Leading 2-0, Montreal handed the Bruins three second-period power plays, offering Boston three prime opportunities to get back into the game. But Carey Price and his defensive squad were in top form, limiting rebounds, clearing traffic, blocking shooting and passing lanes and otherwise neutralizing the Bruins man advantage.
Montreal's special-teams prowess continued on the power play, where the Habs made the Bruins pay with two man-advantage goals in the second frame.
The Habs' two PP markers—they went two-for-five—coupled with Boston's inability to score with the man advantage—they went zero-for-four—were the stories of the game. Had Boston been able to convert on any of those PP opportunities, it would have completely changed the complexion of the game and possibly the outcome.
As a team that doesn't score a lot of five-on-five goals, the Habs need to continue getting it done on the PK and the PP in order to have success.
5. Chara's Hit On Pacioretty and Boston's New Direction
The hit heard around the world last night took place in the second period with the Habs leading, 4-0.
My first reaction after seeing Patches on the ice was that he was dead.
No, seriously—I thought that that was the moment the NHL is headed towards, when a player would die on live television because of a careless play.
Fortunately, Pacioretty did not die, but according to a tweet from RDS' Renaud Lavoie this morning, he is suffering from a severe concussion and could have a fractured vertebra in his neck.
The bottom line is that there is little-to-no chance that Pacioretty will play another game this season. Moreover, given the severity of his concussion, who knows if he will ever play again?
While I fully respect the Bruins and their style of play, it seems like something has changed for them in recent times. There is a fine line between being a rough-and-tumble team and one that is cheap and dirty and Boston seems to be flirting with the latter.
If you take Milan Lucic, for example—he's a player who I have always liked and respected. I mean, what's not to like? He is big, mean, hits, fights, scores and is always difficult to play against.
But what's the deal with him trying to pick fights with non-tough guys?
Moreover, what's the deal with the entire Bruins lineup seemingly doing that? Last game, it was their tough guys putting a beating on Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek and Tom Pyatt and last night, Lucic was trying to get Benoit Pouliot to fight.
Oh ya, real tough there, Lucic.
When was the last time he took on Colton Orr, or Derek Boogaard or Georges Laraque?
As much as I used to respect these players, the Bruins seem to be taking a character turn for the worse, at least against the Habs. I'm not sure if it's a conscious decision or if their coach is pushing them in that direction—I highly doubt it—but Boston is starting to tread on Philly's territory of dirtiness, classlessness and lack of respect.
Let the flaming begin!
Standings and Next Game
Lost in the violence of the Chara hit on Pacioretty is the fact that Montreal won the game, and won it handily.
The win pushes Montreal's win streak to five games, and the Habs have now won six of their last seven and are—along with the Washington Capitals—the hottest team in the league.
Montreal now has a 37-23-7 record and 81 points in the standings, sixth overall in the East. The Habs are one point back of Tampa—who has one game in hand—five points back of Pittsburgh with one game in hand and three back of the Caps and Bruins. Boston has one game in hand.
Behind the Canadiens are the Rangers with 74 points in 68 games, the Sabres with 72 in 66 and the Canes with 71 in 66.
Montreal now goes back out on the road where they take on the St. Louis Blues in St. Louis on Thursday night. With news that St. Louis net-minder Jaroslav Halak has returned from injury, this could end up being a Price versus Halak match that is sure to draw a crowd!