I confess, I had trouble sleeping last night after that 2-1 OT loss. For the first time this playoffs, I entered hockey heart-attack territory during a game, and I wasn't ready for it. I wasn't expecting the Bruins to lie down and die exactly, but I was expecting the Canadiens to have the situation more firmly in hand than they do. Instead, they're one lucky bounce away from being down 2-1 in the series. Of course, they're also one lucky bounce from being up 3-0 too. But last night, every time the Habs missed a chance, or gave up a breakaway only to see it coralled by Cary Price, everyone from the Fleet Centre beer sellers to Guy Carbonneau could feel the inevitability of the Bruins taking this one on some random Canadiens' error.
Ordinarily, it wouldn't be that big a deal. It sucks to lose in overtime, but they're still up 2-1 in the series and all the pressure to win is still on the Bruins...a team the Habs have handled, well, handily all season. It is a big deal though, because the Habs weren't just playing in the Bruins' rink, they were playing the Bruins' game too, and they have been for the last two games.
Montreal wins when the guys in the CH get to pucks first and use their speed to force the other team back on the defensive. They win when they capitalize on their slick-passing powerplay, and when they come at the opposition goalie in offensive waves. They did that in the first period of game one. We haven't seen it since. Instead, we've seen Boston's plugging, hitting, low-scoring style shut down the Habs' PP and ride speedy forwards into the boards. We've seen Tim Thomas get hot when he really needed to be hot. And it makes me nervous.
As we've all seen in the past, underdogs can rise up to fatally bite the top hound. It seems to happen very often in playoff series between these two teams. In 1971, the write-off Habs beat the Bobby Orr-led Bs in seven. In 2004, the seventh-seed Habs clawed back from a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in their history to beat the Bruins, again in seven. Just as we were waiting for the other shoe to drop after the regular-season manhandling of the Bs, we can't help but think the Bruins are due to give some pain of the playoff variety back to Montreal.
The momentum Boston gained from that game...finally seeing their workmanlike, desperate hockey triumph over their regular-season masters...can't be disregarded. They're on a high and they're ready to come out with just as much enthusiasm in game four, only now they have a measure of confidence. It's a different situation entirely, but Carolina in 2006 is haunting me. Canadiens were up two games to none, both games won on the road, and then Justin Williams took out Saku Koivu's eye. Momentum shifted hugely and four games later the Habs were golfing. Here we are again...two-games-to-none lead, no Koivu and what looks suspiciously like a scoring slump starting to kick in. Of course, this year's Habs are a better team, from the goal out, and there's a chance they'll get Koivu back if the series goes long. Nothing says they'll collapse like they did two years ago...except this feeling of foreboding last night's loss created.
In the playoffs, nothing can replace hard work. The Habs did enough to keep themselves in it in the last two games. But the Bruins did more. They were the ones who got to every loose puck first. They were the ones who shot the puck into the offensive zone and doggedly chased it down. They're outworking the Canadiens, and no amount of talent or speed can replace that effort. When the highest-scoring team in the league with the number one powerplay relies for two games on the offensive talents of Brian Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos, you have to start questioning some things. Like why Alex Kovalev is playing his most ineffective hockey of the season, and why Chris Higgins and Guillaume Latendresse are finding themselves so rarely in front of Tim Thomas.
I'm going to spend a very nervous couple of days now, until I see that the Habs have decided to come out and play some hardworking hockey tomorrow night. If they do, they will be the better team. If they continue to rely on Carey Price bailing them out and trust in their on-paper superiority to put them over the top, they'll be toast by this time next week.
If the fans are the seventh man in a hockey series, then momentum is the eighth. Right now, old Mo is on the Boston side, and the Canadiens have an uphill battle to get her back on Tuesday night. If they can't muster up the effort to do that in a series that should be eminently winnable, they don't deserve to be in first place, or even in the playoffs. Don't get me wrong...I still think the Habs are the better team. They've proven their ability to adjust and respond to adversity all year. But they have work to do. This will either teach an inexperienced playoff team what post-season hockey is all about and that there are no freebies in April, or it will show us this isn't the team we thought it was.
I'm uneasy, and I don't like it. I need my sleep.