BOSTON — All day long, from sports radio to newspaper columns to fan blogs to the world of Twitter, Thursday's tilt with the Canadiens was billed as the biggest regular-season game of the year for the Bruins. They responded by opening up a three-goal lead in the first 18 minutes of the game.
For Montreal, though, it may have been a game with even more significance, as the Canadiens are fighting an uphill battle to leapfrog the Bruins in the division standings. They had inspiration from certain Bruins' comments about the injured Max Pacioretty, they had major playoff-seeding implications at stake and they had every reason to come out like a team possessed.
Instead, they came out completely flat.
"They got on us early, and we got behind. We kind of got deflated," captain Brian Gionta said after the Bruins rolled to a 7-0 win. "It's disappointing."
Prior to the game, P.K. Subban, among others, stressed that they wouldn't be seeking retribution on Zdeno Chara for his hit on Pacioretty two weeks ago, and they followed through on that promise. No Canadiens player even bothered to lay a body check on Chara, who was able to pick up a pair of first-period assists and one more in the third.
Head coach Jacques Martin was asked why his team had no response for Chara.
"Why not? The response is you want to win the hockey game," Martin said. "We're in a battle with the Bruins, we were trailing them by three points, and it was an important game. We just came up short. We didn't accomplish what we wanted to accomplish."
Martin disagreed with the assessment that his team played with a lack of emotion.
"I don't know if it's a lack of emotion," he said. "I think it's a lack of execution. We didn't execute very well."
The one Canadiens player who did hint he was personally upset with the Bruins before the game was Paul Mara, who took offense to Mark Recchi's statement on Thursday that Pacioretty's concussion was "embellished" by the Canadiens organization in an effort to get Chara suspended. It took a while, but Mara let out his frustration, throwing several punches at Recchi's head in front of the Montreal net midway through the second period. Mara was penalized four minutes for roughing, and on his next shift, he dropped the mitts with Gregory Campbell.
Even that couldn't turn things around for the Habs in the final period. Despite Mara's efforts, the Canadiens were outmatched in nearly every department. The B's outshot Montreal 18-9 in the first period, 11-6 in the second period and 12-9 in the third period. The Canadiens also couldn't stay out of the penalty box, racking up 19 penalty minutes in the first two periods. Though the Bruins only converted one of their six power-play opportunities in that time, the puck was consistently in the Montreal end, preventing the Canadiens from generating scoring chances.
When the Canadiens finally did get a big opportunity with a two-man advantage, they allowed Campbell to break free and score on a rare 3-on-5 to tally the Bruins' final goal.
Before Thursday night's game, there was much trepidation in Boston regarding a first-round matchup with the Canadiens. That won't go away completely now that the B's are 2-3-1 against the Habs, but among those concerns was the way the Bruins perform — or don't perform — at the Bell Centre. Yet, as Thursday's game showed, the Canadiens may have the same issues playing in Boston.
"It's almost, if you lose tonight 2-1, maybe it doesn't reveal it, but a big loss makes it much less about the opponent and much more about us," said Michael Cammalleri, who finished the game with a minus-4 rating.
Gionta was adamant in saying the Bruins are in no way in the heads of the Canadiens.
"No. We know that they played a very simple game," he said. "We got behind early, took some penalties, we lost some momentum that way, too. It just spiraled from there."
Though the Canadiens looked out of their element on Thursday evening, Martin didn't want to spend any energy worrying about a potential first-round playoff series.
"I think we'll focus on the task at hand before looking at what's coming ahead," the coach said.
What's ahead won't be easy. The Canadiens now sit five points behind Boston in the Northeast Division, and they have two fewer games left in the season. They'll also have the stinging taste of losing by a touchdown in Boston lingering in their mouths should they return in April.
In recent years, when the Bruins head to Montreal, they often seem affected by the crowd noise, the referees or whatever it is that can overwhelm a team on the road in one of the loudest buildings in the league. But the roles were very clearly reversed on Thursday night. Carey Price, a fringe candidate for the Vezina Trophy, was off his game, so much so that he had to be pulled after allowing five goals on 33 shots. The Habs lost their composure, took bad penalties and missed several scoring chances. In a game where they needed to be their best, the Canadiens looked their absolute worst.
Suddenly, it may be the Canadiens who want nothing to do with Boston when the playoffs roll around next month.