The rivalry is ancient, but it never gets old. The Bruins and Canadiens will meet in the playoffs for the 33rd time when they open their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series Thursday night at the Garden. That's more postseason clashes than any two teams in NHL history.
Montreal has prevailed in 24 of the previous meeting, but Boston swept the Habs in their last meeting in 2009. Which side of the rivalry will earn the bragging rights this season? Here's the Tale of the Tape.
Somewhat surprisingly based on past history, the Bruins have a decided advantage here, at least while the teams are playing 5 on 5. After finishing dead last in scoring last season, the Bruins rose to fifth this year with 2.98 goals a game. Montreal ranked just 22nd at 2.60. The Bruins had the only 30-goal scorer between the two teams with Milan Lucic and the only 60-point scorers with Lucic and David Krejci, who each finished with 62 points. Boston also had the superior depth and a more balanced attack with 14 players scoring 10 or more goals, compared to nine for the Canadiens.
Montreal does have some dangerous weapons in Tomas Plekanec (22-35-57), Michael Cammalleri (19-28-47), Brian Gionta (29-17-46) and Andrei Kostitsyn (20-25-45) up front, plus some help from the back end with P.K. Subban (14-24-38). But the Bruins have gotten production out of all four lines and both the Lucic-Krejci-Nathan Horton and Brad Marchand–Patrice Bergeron–Mark Recchi line have proven capable of carrying the offense for extended stretches this season.
The Bruins have a stable top six led by Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara. After plenty of mixing and matching all season long, Boston has seemingly found three solid combinations with Chara paired with Johnny Boychuk, Tomas Kaberle with Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference with Adam McQuaid. Boychuk struggled early but came on strong late in the year, helped no doubt by playing alongside Chara, whose own play spiked after his controversial hit on Montreal's Max Paciorettty. Kaberle can be an adventure in his own zone at times, but he's a helped in the transition game and having a shot-blocking machine like Seidenberg (174 blocked shots) limits the damage he can do in the defensive end. McQuaid struggled a bit late in the season, but has added a needed physical presence and even some offense (3-12-15), while Ference is an underrated steadying force.
The Canadiens have lost Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges for the year with knee injuries, but Jaroslav Spacek did return for the final two games of the regular season after missing 23 games with a knee injury of his own. His return will help, and Subban is an offensive threat who can throw some big hits (just ask Marchand). James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik add some additional experience, while former Bruin defenseman Hal Gill has proven effective in a shutdown role. But with veteran journeymen like Paul Mara, Brent Sopel and Alexandre Picard rounding out the blue-line corps, this isn't an especially imposing unit.
This is the strength of both teams. Tim Thomas posted a 35-11-9 record with a league-leading 2.00 GAA, an NHL-record .938 save percentage and nine shutouts. He's the prohibitive favorite to win his second Vezina Trophy in the last three years. Montreal's Carey Price could be a finalist as well after going 38-28-6 with a 2.35 GAA, .923 save percentage and eight shutouts.
Thomas has had his struggles against the Habs, though, with a 10-14-4 record, 3.05 GAA and .906 save percentage against the Canadiens in his career. He was actually 2-1-1 against Montreal this year with his first career shutout of the Canadiens, and was 4-0 with 1.50 GAA and .946 save percentage in a first-round sweep of the Habs in 2009. Price is 13-4-2 with a 2.72 GAA and a .915 save percentage against the Bruins in the regular season, but took all four of those losses in that 2009 playoff sweep. He had two shutouts in Montreal's seven-game triumph in 2008, but also allowed five goals in two games that series. Overall, he's 4-7 with a 2.77 GAA and a .907 save percentage against Boston in the postseason.
The Bruins were first in the league in 5-on-5 scoring with 177 goals. The Canadiens were 26th with 137. But if Montreal can get enough of this series played on special teams, the scales become tipped decidedly in their favor. Montreal was seventh in the NHL this year on both the power play (57-290, 19.7 percent) and the penalty kill (51-327, 84.4 percent). The Bruins were just 20th on the power play (43-265, 16.2 percent) and 16th on the penalty kill (46-265, 82.6 percent). Boston was shorthanded the fourth-fewest times in the league and was tied for fourth with 11 shorthanded goals, while Montreal was shorthanded more times than any other team in the league. The Bruins might not be able to take advantage of that though, as they ranked just 27th in power-play opportunities.
In the six head-to-head matchups, special teams played a huge role. The Habs were 9-of-28 on the power play (32.1 percent), while Boston was just 3-of-24 (12.5 percent). Montreal averaged just 3.53 power-play chances a game over the full season, but that number jumped to 4.67 a game against the Bruins. Boston can't afford to spend that much time in the box in this series.
Claude Julien has guided the Bruins to the postseason in each of his four seasons behind the Boston bench, and got the team past the first round in back-to-back years for the first time since 1993 and 1994. He's never lead a team beyond the second round, with a 3-4 series record and 21-21 game record in the playoffs, but he's only lost once in the opening round and even then his eighth-seeded Bruins pushed top-seed Montreal to seven games in 2008. Montreal coach Jacques Martin has gotten to a conference final twice, with Ottawa in 2002-03 and Montreal last year. But he's never reached the Cup final and is 7-11 in series and 47-57 in playoff games in 15 seasons with St. Louis, Ottawa, Florida and Montreal, falling five times in the opening round.
There are a number of additional factors that could sway this series. The Canadiens have an edge in playoff experience, with Cup winners Scott Gomez, Gionta, Travis Moen, Gill and Sopel, plus the nucleus of last year's conference finalist squad. Boston does have two players with rings in Recchi and Shawn Thornton, but they also have Horton, Greg Campbell, Marchand and Tyler Seguin who have never played in an NHL playoff game and Kaberle whose last postseason appearance was back in 2004.
The Bruins do have a decided advantage in size, toughness and grit, and will need to impose their physical style of play on this series. History favors the Habs, though the freshest memories are positive ones for Boston, with the Bruins sweeping the last playoff series two years ago and winning the final meeting this season 7-0. Boston also has an advantage in health, with only Marc Savard, who was never a factor this season, and depth defenseman Steven Kampfer injured going into the series. Montreal is without Markov and Gorges on the blue line and Pacioretty up front.
The Bruins also hold home ice for the series. That hasn't been a huge advantage for them this year, as they were just 14th in the league with a 22-13-6 record at home. But they were 7-1-3 in their last 11 home games and won the last two meetings with the Habs at the Garden. Montreal was far more dependent on home cooking, going 24-11-6 at the Bell Centre (6th best home mark in league) and just 20-19-2 on the road (19th). The Bruins were fifth in the league on the road (24-12-5), but were 0-2-1 at Montreal. Both barns should be loud and hostile with the fervent fan bases of both cities and the bad blood between the clubs, but that intensity could play into the Bruins' hands as Boston usually performs best when emotionally involved.
On paper, this should be the Bruins' series. They are the deeper and better team and beat out Montreal for the division title for a reason. But the Habs did win the head-to-head series and past history shows anything can happen when rivals like this clash. The feeling here is the Bruins should prevail, but the longer the series goes, the more likely the Canadiens will spring the upset.
Prediction: Bruins in 5.