The Rivalry

There are many great rivalries in sports…Boston Celtics vs. The Los Angeles Lakers, New York Yankees vs. The Boston Red Sox, Dallas Cowboys vs. everyone in their division. No disrespect to any of those sports or teams, but nothing is quite like a good old school hockey rivalry. While basketball and baseball breed rivals through familiarity – repeated games, long playoff series, etc… – and football breeds rivals through unbridled fan passion and the brutal physicality of the game, the only sports that brings all that together is hockey. While there have been great rivals in the annals of the NHL: from regional rivals like the Oilers vs. Flames, or Rangers vs. Devils; to old school rivals like the Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens or the Blackhawks vs. Red Wings; to rivals that were just emotion-based like the Avalanche vs. Red Wings or Flyers fans vs. Anger Management professionals; there is nothing like a good ol’ fashioned hockey rivalry to stoke any sports fan’s embers and spawn a great roaring fire of passion and fanaticism.

But…

There is one rivalry that stands above all the rest; one that melds the competitiveness that stems from regional proximity; one that is steeped deep in the history of the game; and one that seems to generate a more emotionally charged response than any other match up in NHL history and very few other match ups in sports history.

The Montreal Canadiens versus the Boston Bruins.

These two teams are set to meet for the 34th time in the NHL playoffs. The two teams have played each other more times, in both regular season play and the playoffs combined, than any other two teams in NHL history.

This is “The Rivalry”.

So without further ado (mainly because I procrastinated for 8 days in finalizing this, and as a result need to rush this)…

Here is my Habs vs. Bruins Round 2 NHL Playoff Match Up Preview Extravaganza!! (Trumpets sound)

The top 5 reasons that the Boston Bruins will win this series:

1) They’re the BEST damn team in the NHL:
When I say the best team, I’m going to strip away the special teams factor for a second and look at teams in their basic element: even strength.

Let’s review the facts. The Bruins were far and away the best even strength team in the league this year. They led the league in even strength scoring ratio of 1.53 (even strength goals for/against). The second closest team had a ratio of 1.39 (Anaheim Ducks). That’s a significant gap.

If that’s not proof enough, eight of the last ten Stanley Cup finalists finished in the top 10 in even strength scoring F/A and four of the past five Stanley Cup winners were top 10 in even strength scoring F/A (the only outlier is the 2012 LA Kings who finished 17th).

Furthermore, they had the most 15 goal scorers in the league this year, the second best defense in the NHL, and the third best offense. If NHL teams were built by the three little pigs, the Bruins would be built out of bricks – bricks laced with fortified steel…and then dipped in adamantium.

2) Depth:
A lot of teams have good depth, but the Bruins have the best depth in the league. Regularly rolling four lines, their top lines are allowed to stay fresh and make a sustained push in the third period, either to put the game away, or to make a comeback. Their depth also allows them to weather injuries without missing a beat.

As mentioned, they had the most 15 goal scorers in the league with eight players, and also the second most 20 goal scorers, with six players notching that plateau. This is the best and most well balanced attack in hockey.

3) Gorillas in the Mist:
Remember the movie Congo? I don’t either. But I do remember that there were these giant gorillas, who were bigger, stronger, faster. That’s tough enough to deal with, right? But these gorillas were also skilled in hunting; they worked together and took out the human interlopers one by one! (Full disclosure: I have no idea what the movie is about, but I’m rolling with this). These gorillas are the Boston Bruins. Long known for their big size, bruising nature, and hard-nosed play, this team boasts some serious scoring skill across their top three lines, and their chemistry is evident as they are top 5 in the league in many advanced possession stats (Corsi, Fenwick, PDO). (Full Disclosure take 2: I’m not sure if these are possession stats, but I’m rolling with this.)

4) Special Teams:
Hey, wait a second – this is a strength? The Stanley Cup winning Bruins team from 2011 is also known for having one of the worst power plays in NHL playoff history. Scary enough that they won a cup without their power play, because now they have one of the most dominant power plays in the league. Finishing third overall this season, the promotion of Torey Krug last year and the addition of Jerome Iginla have turned one of their few weaknesses into one of their greatest weapons. Their penalty kill finished 8th and was led by the soon to be Selke winner, Patrice Bergeron. So in summary, I’d like all Habs fans to reread point 1, and then reread this point…and then find a huge bowl of boiling hot clam chowder and dunk your head in it.

5) “Tukka”n play at this game:
I find it interesting lately that some members of the media have suggested that Tukka Rask is a by-product of a defensive system and if he played on a more “pedestrian” team his numbers wouldn’t be as good. Is there a more short-sighted and worse argument in sports? Every player in every sport is a by-product of their team. No one player is above his team, and if that is the case, then that team won’t win anything. Carey Price is a great goalie, but let’s get real please. So is Tukka Rask; in fact, he is one of the best goaltenders in the world. He will win the Vezina this year, and he is rolling into this series with a 0.961 save percentage. He’s capable of stealing this series even though he probably won’t have to. Think about that statement…and then find some Sam Adams and drink till you forget it.

The top 5 reasons that the Montreal Canadiens will win this series:

1) Mobile Defense:
The Habs boast two of the top twenty offensive defensemen in the league, as well as two defensemen who are regarded as elite passers out of their zone. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov give the Habs an advantage that few teams in the Eastern conference own. Some of the best analyses I heard during the Bruins/Red Wings series was that Detroit D had to move the puck up and out of the zone quick or else the Bruins forecheck was on them, wreaking havoc and causing turnovers. P.K. and Markov should be able to move the puck up to the forwards quick enough to avoid the forecheck for the most part, and at worst both are skilled enough to carry it out themselves (although when P.K. does it, I sometimes close my eyes and pray to St. Rocket). Make no mistake about it – the Bruins will target both and make it a point to hit them hard and hit them often, and while those two players will be instrumental in countering the forecheck, they’ll need the full support of their defensive partners and their forwards to survive the Bruins.

2) Depth:
So the Habs have depth, too? I thought the Bruins were the deepest team in the league. The Bruins are the deepest team in the league, but the Habs boast their own depth although it tends to exist on a slippery slope. (By slippery, I mean it’s apparently built on a foundation of hugs, some shrewd mid-season pick-ups and a great medical staff.) The emergence of Rene Bourque in the first round has allowed Therrien to roll four effective lines. The additions of Vanek, Weise and Weaver have all worked out and given the Habs more scoring punch, more grit and more insurance in case of injury. When you also consider that veterans like Gionta and Briere understand the stakes of the playoffs and raise their games, it makes the Habs a more dangerous team. We can’t forget the enthusiasm of young players like Bournival and Gallagher as well. It seems like for the first time in 21 years, the Habs can roll four legit lines right now.

3) Who’s afraid of the big bad Bruins:
I’ll be the first to admit it. Zdeno Chara is scary. In many sports leagues, size and weight are exaggerated to make a statement. Chara is a statement. At 6’9, 260 pounds, he is a behemoth. A few years ago he infamously broke Max Pacioretty’s neck when he drove him into the stanchion at the Bell Centre. I’m not here to rehash that moment. What’s done is done, but here is the reality of what happened after: Pacioretty healed, came back stronger, and finished this season as the fourth leading goal scorer in the NHL. Do you think he’s scared of Chara? Not a chance. For whatever reason, the Habs aren’t scared of the Bruins. They aren’t intimidated. It’s old news to call the Habs a “small” team. Yes, Gionta is short; so is Gallagher…Desharnais is REALLY short. But you know what personality characteristics short, small players tend to develop? Resilience. They usually spend their whole lives hearing how they can’t make it and how they won’t make it. Do you think those guys are scared? Do you think they’re intimidated? They’re driven to beat teams like the Bruins. Yes, the Bruins are big. The Bruins are strong. The Bruins are tough. All those points are true, and so is this one…the Habs don’t give a flying crap about any of that. Drop the puck.

4) A tale of two Hulks:
Have the Forum ghosts finally made their way down to the Bell Centre? Fans have been speculating ever since the non goal/goal and the Stamkos broken stick in games 3 and 4 of the first round. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but what I do know is whether it’s the Habs mystique, or the fact that the Habs may be just a bunch of annoying pricks, but the Bruins just seem to struggle to maintain their game when they play them. Bottom line is the Habs get under the Bruins’ skin, and the Bruins will have to maintain their composure. This will be an important subplot in the series and a key factor for the Habs. They need to throw the Bruins off their game and also not fall into the trap of playing that game. It’s a fine line. The Habs need to make sure the Bruins end up like the Hulk at the beginning of The Avengers (when he transforms on the helicarrier). That Hulk proceeds to lose control, causes all sorts of damage, slaps the Black Widow, fights Thor, attacks a fighter jet and falls 30,000 feet into a building. Meanwhile the Bruins will try to be more like the Hulk at the end of The Avengers (when he casually tells Captain America…”Sup guy, everyone chill out, I’m always angry dude”) who in a very calm and in a controlled fashion turns into the Hulk and punches a ginormous, 20 ton flying slug in the face.

5) Price is Right:
There is a reason I left this point till the end: goaltending is the single most important factor in this series.
Without a shadow of a doubt the only way the Habs can win this match up is if Carey Price is the best player in this series. This is his moment; he has a chance to take his legacy to another level. Already accomplished in every way, I’ve discussed him at length in my previous blog entry and will not rehash his many accolades, but win or lose, he needs to excel here. While many fans point to Rask’s poor record versus the Habs and Price’s good record versus the Bruins, the bottom line is the playoffs are a new season, and they’re both starting at zero against one another.

Odds are whoever wins this goaltending fight will lead their respective teams to victory in the series.

There you have it. If you have any feedback, feel free to leave any comments on facebook or twitter!!(follow me @wolverine_z).

Oh…and who am I picking? Bruins in 6. But I hope I’m wrong…I really really hope I’m wrong.

Go Habs Go.

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