It’s a word that we use often. Pierre McGuire constantly reminds us to “manage” them, but we often let them get away from us just the same. When we talk about individual players, coaches, teams and outcomes, we all have our own expectations for what the final analysis should read. Sometimes their fair, sometimes they’re more fantasy than reality-based.
I can’t recall a playoff series that has such a wide gamut of expectations on either side of the fence as this 33rd matchup between Montreal and Boston. Both sides expect (demand?) victory, and both sides have compelling cases as to why their side will come out on top.
No doubt Bruins fans, and indeed Bruins management expect their team to employ the ‘Big, Bad Bruins’ philosophy. It’s been their identity for decades, and it’s how they play the game. They’ll expect the belief of superior size, and skill, propelled by their two most recent home wins over Montreal, to grind the Habs in to a gooey tri-coloured paste. They’ll expect to break the Canadiens’ will through intimidation. The Bruins almost certainly expect to prove that their Northeast Division win wasn’t all for naught, and they want to do it with authority. Their Head Coach, Claude Julien expects that his team will carry their strong regular season in to the playoffs with their rough-and-tumble style, and escape the first round unscathed (no doubt he has to expect that, otherwise he can expect to be shown the door). General Manager Peter Chiarelli clearly expects big things, as he was the one pulling the trigger on significant trade deadline upgrades. He will have answering to do if the Bruins don’t go very deep in the playoffs.
The Bruins see this postseason as a prime chance to win it all for the first time since 1972. They’ve added Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley, and Chris Kelly for their playoff run…you don’t make those types of additions if you don’t think your window is wide open. These moves signaled the Bruins intentions and expectations, and they desperately want to capitalize before that window slams shut. The pressure is squarely and intensely on the Bruins to squash their pesky little foes and take another step in leveling the scales – which currently tip heavily in Montreal’s favour: 24 playoff series victories to the Bruins’ 8. Should the Bruins again fall to their bitter rivals (the Habs represent the ultimate bear trap) you can expect a lot of questions. You can expect a lot of anger. You can probably also expect some big changes.
The Bruins have elite goaltending, but I’m not sure what to expect of Tim Thomas, and I bet I’m not the only one. He’s a virtual lock for the Vézina trophy as the league’s best regular season goaltender, as he should be, but his numbers against the Habs are anything but impressive. Who will we see? The former and probable once-again Vézina winner, or the guy with bambi legs when facing the Habs?
Goaltending aside, there’s a lot of very good talent up front wearing black and gold. Bergeron, Horton, Krejci, Peverley, Ryder, Recchi, Marchand and Lucic are all terrific players in their own right. They’re a solid mix of power, skill, speed, and sharpshooting. Overall they lack playoff experience, but Dr. Recchi’s long career probably carries enough experience for everyone to share in. Defensively, however is where the Bruins are vulnerable. Outside of Chara, their defense is nothing to write home about. They’re not horrendous, but the quicker Habs forwards should be able to exploit that weakness – provided the Canadiens can get possession of the puck.
As for the Habs and their fans, last year’s improbable run deep in to the playoffs broke ground that nobody with the CH tatooed on their heart had seen since 1993 - a lifetime for fans spoiled by annual Cup parades. That run to the Eastern Conference Finals – for better or worse – sent the explicit message that simply making the playoffs is no longer enough. The happy news – if you can call it that – is that both the team and fanbase seem to be in lock-step with this belief. The team knows the bar has been raised, and the fans are all too happy to go along with that.
Recall that just one year ago, it was a pretty much a brand new Habs roster, with new coaching, new management and new ownership…how could they have done what they did considering all of the upheaval? It was mind-boggling to be sure, but fast forward to the present day, and the new car smell has worn off this Habs team. The Canadiens are now expected to replicate their results from last year – or at the very least not bow out in round one – not to the hated Bruins – and especially not after what Chara did to Max Pacioretty. It’s simply unacceptable to Montreal fans – no matter their conference rankings – that the Canadiens be eliminated by the Bruins. It’s the bitterest of pills. Fans of the Bruins will undoubtedly be upset should the Bruins fail, but most of them will quickly get behind the Celtics and Red Sox to soothe their pain (though the Sox may not be the ideal place to find solace right now). In Montreal, fans will gnash their teeth over a loss to the Bruins all summer long.
Getting a little more granular, Habs fans expect greatness from Carey Price, despite his less-than-stellar career playoff numbers. His playoff experience certainly is a mixed bag, but think back to Price’s rookie season and his performances in the first round against the Bruins – most notably his game seven performance. His 5-11 playoff record is underwhelming, but it overshadows some brilliant performances, and is skewed by the complete no-show the Habs put forth during the centennial collpase. After a terrific regular season, and with a solid record against Boston over the past 2 years there’s little reason to expect anything different from the Habs netminder. He will almost certainly be good, but he needs to be better than Tim Thomas if the Canadiens are to win this series. There will be defensive lapses all around him and he will have to continue to bail out his mates, as has done since October.
With the aforementioned centennial sweep at the hands of the Bruins a long faded (repressed?) memory, it should not factor in to anybody’s psyche in this series; the Habs roster reset of last season took care of that, even if the Bruins choose to use that sweep as a source of confidence. So what else do Habs fans expect? Certainly they expect the best players to perform like the best players, as they should. That means Plekanec, Gomez, Cammalleri and Gionta need to produce on the scoreboard, with no exceptions. If Plekanec can’t produce points on the road, if Gomez can’t salvage his disastrous season in the playoffs (where he usually excels), if Cammallieri goes stone cold again, and if Gionta is neutralized, the Habs are done like dinner. There cannot be any “yes, but X was good defensively” or “yeah but X played hurt” type of excuses if they fire blanks. Guys in their paygrade don’t earn several million dollars just to be defensively reliable; Jeff Halpern is. Mathieu Darche is. Tom Pyatt is. Also, at this stage, everyone has a nagging injury, so that excuse carries little water except for with apologists. This is the time of year when good players really earn the paychecks and make their names, so these four key cogs need to deliver on the scoreboard, end of story. It would be grossly unfair to the likes of Lars Eller, David Desharnais, Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot to expect them to carry the load offensively, and any production from Moen, Darche, Pyatt, Halpern, and White while certainly welcome, should be seen as found money. It can be argued that the Canadiens’ under-25 group is a prime reason why the Habs are in the playoffs, but it will have to be the highly paid veterans who lead the charge. Defensively, the group “is what it is”. They’re slow, old, not very tough and don’t move the puck particularly well. As they did in virtually each of the 82 games, the Canadiens will be caught running around their own zone in a frantic, disorganized mess from time to time. This is expected, and habitual with this team. Anyone surprised at that may need to be handed the smelling salts. While it’s unlikely for the defense to clean up its act now when they have even more miles on the tires, their veteran savvy may reveal a trick or two up their sleeve. Shot blocking is one thing; physicality, and quickly moving the puck with purpose are other animals entirely. By now you know which ones the Canadiens do well, and which ones they don’t. The questions is which of the things that they don’t do well can they mitigate the most?
We can expect Jacques Martin and his staff to be steady in their demeanor, even if it isn’t always deemed the ideal approach. Don’t expect any surprises. Don’t expect much emotion, or much reaction to anything. There will be canned coach-speak, and the common clichés. In this respect, the Habs coaching staff is as easy to set expectations for as it gets. If there’s one unfortunate expectation it’s that the coaching staff has been unable to stop the Canadiens from taking minor penalties through 82 games, and there’s not much reason to think they’ll find a way to stop it now…but any more bench minors for Too Many Men should be viewed as unacceptable. The Canadiens already spend too much time on the penalty kill and in their own end at even strength. There’s no need to make that problem worse by taking entirely preventable penalties. While the Habs usually do a good job of killing penalties, any time spent on the penalty kill is time wasted in the Bruins zone, and precious energy spent by the likes of Tomas Plekanec and Roman Hamrlik. On the flip side of the special teams battle, the Habs do a terrible job of drawing penalties. They’re not big enough to force opponents to take interference penalties, and they don’t play a style that allows their speed to force opponents to hook, hold, grab and trip with much frequency. In order for the Habs to get on the power play, they need to be antagonistic thorns in the Bruins’ side, and they need to avoid retaliating when they do raise the Bruins ire. They need to be that team that the Bruins constantly whine about. Getting under the Bruins’ skin and getting them off their game is paramount.
If the Canadiens are planning on applying pieces of last year’s playoff game plan to this year’s, it would be at best a risky gambit. While the Canadiens allowed offensive-minded players like Ovechkin, Semin, Crosby and Malkin to fire at will, once they faced the Flyers, who are a deeper, more evenly distributed team they were stopped dead in their tracks. This Bruins team more closely mirrors that fatal Flyers bunch in that there isn’t one or two players to shut down in order to win. Stop Ovechkin and Backstrom – you win. Stop Crosby and Malkin – you win. Stop Richards and Carter? Oops - what about Brière and Giroux? It’s tough to identify just a couple of Bruins to stop, because others are eminently capable of seamlessly filling the void; they’re like the Hydra that way. No doubt they’re a formidable group, and they’ll seek to overwhelm the slow-moving Habs defense. The Canadiens would love to block as many shots as they did last year, but it would be dangerous indeed to allow the Bruins free passage in the Habs zone as they did with the Capitals and Penguins.
At the end of this long-winded post, I’m expecting a simlarly long series that will go at least 6 games. I believe that whoever takes the first game will eventually win in 6 games…and I think Carey Price will steal game 1 in Boston.