Watching game four between Montreal and Boston last night reminded me of an arm-wrestling match between two big guys...elbows planted, biceps bulging and faces red with effort, their eyes and hands locked in combat. The showdown began with Boston leaning hard into the Habs, forcing them back and looking like they'd score a quick one. But the Canadiens dug in and held off the Bruins' desperate attack through twenty minutes. Then, gradually, the Habs' relentless skating began to turn the game in Montreal's favour. Almost imperceptibly at first...a few missed Boston passes, a few more Canadiens' hits catching their targets, faceoffs going to the guys in white...the battle shifted. By the time the third rolled around, the Canadiens were the ones playing airtight defence while the Bruins looked tired and slow. SLAM! With six shots in the final period, the exhausted Boston team's wrist hit the table.
I don't know about you, but I wasn't very satisfied after the Canadiens' 2-1 OT win last Saturday. Sure, they went up 2-0 in the series, but they didn't really deserve it. They were outplayed and looked a bit stunned by the Bruins' intensity. They hit, but were unwilling to pay the physical price to get in front of the net and grind out a win, seeming to expect the open ice and offensive dominance to which they'd become accustomed against this team during the regular season. The overtime goal was a good shot on the powerplay, and I couldn't help but feel they were lucky to get it. Last night was different. It seems as though this young group has learned a whole lot about what it means to be a playoff team.
The powerplay and high-powered offence have been their bread and butter for the last seven months. But master tactician Claude Julien has studied the tapes and made a game plan suited to his team's strengths. His plan has been very effective in neutralizing the Canadiens' attack, and it would be tempting for inexperienced players to get frustrated when the skills on which they've relied all year are suddenly not working. But the Habs have countered with a grinding game of their own...one that's faster and at least as punishing as Boston's. They've learned that playoff hockey is played in the corners and the goalcrease and that no ice is conceded willingly.
They've learned when the opposition smothers the players who carried the team all year, the supporting players must step up and be the heroes. Smolinski, Kostopoulos, Brisebois...all scratches this year...have been the warriors leading the team into the fray. They've bought the team time until the high-flyers can adapt and make the contributions they're expected to make.
They've learned not to panic when a loss seems to swing momentum to the other team and fill it with confidence. Guy Carbonneau played more than two hundred playoff games and he knows better than anyone that a series isn't won in one or two games, and players can't get ecstatic when they get up two games to none, or too worried when they lose one. As he said before the playoffs began, "It's okay to lose the first game, but it's not okay to lose the last one." That philosophy seems to be registering with his team, which has found a new level of dedication and determination to win after the game three loss that put the Bruins back in it.
Another lesson learned: the importance of discipline. In many games during the last month of the regular season and in the first three games of this playoff series, the Canadiens have been prone to taking many more lazy, ill-thought-out penalties than they had for most of the regular season. In the last game, Steve Begin's end-of-period tripping penalty notwithstanding, the Canadiens successfully walked the fine line between tough and stupid. Learning to keep their heads under intense physical stress is a lesson that will serve them well in future playoff games.
And one of the most important things any team can learn about surviving and thriving in the post-season is the value of a single goal. Never can a team take a lead for granted, and when it's achieved, it must be protected at all costs. The team is learning that one fluky or dirty goal could be the difference in advancing or going home in ignominy. The Habs know they can rely on Carey Price to give them every chance to win. Now they know they can rely on themselves to support him and shut down the opposition. The last ten minutes of last night's win were thrilling, heart-stopping and impressive.
The Canadiens have the Bruins on the ropes now and can finish the job with a win at home tomorrow. But one more lesson they have to learn: an opponent isn't done until the final siren sounds on their fourth loss. They should expect the Bruins to fight for every inch in game five, just as they have in the last four.
And they should be thankful to the Bruins too, despite the cuts and bruises they'll take away from this series. Every good young team needs to learn the hard way what it takes to be successful in the playoffs, no matter how good they are in the regular season. It's turned out Boston is a hard teacher; a steely-eyed opponent who won't go to the mat easily.