Every so often, pop culture hands the sports world a catchphrase it then proceeds to wear into fine dust.
The film The Other Guys, a minor cult classic from 2010, gave us “big boy pants” – as in put-on-the and get on with it.
L.A. Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant famously aimed the expression at teammate Pau Gasol, New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault trotted it out earlier this year in reminding his top players they had a job to do and by the way tick-tick-tick.
It’s a fact, some athletes take longer than others to fill out their metaphorical grown-up trousers.
As the Habs prepare for game three of the Eastern Conference final in Manhattan on Thursday – down 0-2 in the series it’s big-boy time, and Montreal is undefeated in must-win games so far this spring – it is worth zooming out to consider the broader picture.
It reveals a team that has grown and matured markedly over the past five weeks; no matter what happens in this series it’s an encouraging development for the Habs’ front office.
Going into these playoffs, 39-goal winger Max Pacioretty had played in just four career postseason games – though he only scored one goal through his first nine games in these playoffs, he has three in his past four and has been terrorizing opposing defencemen (he had five scoring chances in the first period of Game 2 alone).
The 25-year-old forward appears to have figured out this whole playoffs deal.
He’s not the only one.
David Desharnais, a guy with only 10 career playoff games before this year who’s supposed to be too small to do anything of note at this level, is playing like a number one centre; Lars Eller (eight games), the picture of beleaguered all year long, has emerged as the Habs’ most consistent forward; Brendan Gallagher (five games), is the human sparkplug – jam him on a line and watch the RPM needle go up.
The list could go on, Michael Bournival (zero games before this year), Nathan Beaulieu (zip), look the every inch the NHL part.
The sample size isn’t large enough to include Dustin Tokarski, who will get his second start in net on Thursday in place of the injured Carey Price.
Pacioretty, a self-described ‘huge Rangers fan’ as a kid, says it all clicked into place long before you might think: in the first round against Tampa.
“I had a lot of meetings with the coaches at that point, obviously people look at the end result and look at the goals column and that’s how they base [their judgment of] my game,” he said. “But coaches felt otherwise, that’s what makes it all, in the end, almost laughable … one of my best stretches of hockey is probably when I was getting carved the most in the media.”
Another who has donned the large child pantaloons in these playoffs is the man charged with getting the most out of the Habs and turning his young players into playoff-savvy veterans, coach Michel Therrien.
His gentle exhortations late in the Boston series to the effect that his best players needed to stand a little taller paid off (Pacioretty scored in Game 6 and potted the winner in Game 7).
Now he’ll hope it works again with veterans Thomas Vanek and Tomas Plekanec.
Vanek has two goals and one assist in his past seven games – both goals came in Game 6 against Boston, one was an empty-netter – and has just one shot on goal in the Rangers series.
Therrien wasn’t about to rip into Vanek in public, but he did – in circuitous fashion – suggest that the experiment of playing him on Plekanec’s right side is over.
Captain Brian Gionta spent Wednesday’s practice in Vanek’s former spot while the free-agent-to-be was taking turns on the fourth line alongside former Buffalo teammate Daniel Brière.
Therrien appeared to pour cold water on the idea of reuniting the pair (“don’t read too much into it”) but allowed that “the Plekanec line needs to give us more.”
“I’m ready to stick sometimes with combination and with three guys working together as long as I see even the results sometimes is not there but the chances are there,” he said. “But if I see there are no chances, not much happening, so now I’m at a point where I have to make some decisions.”
The good news for the Habs is that a lot of Therrien’s decisions – some of them uncharacteristically bold – have come up aces.
Going with Beaulieu against Boston, giving Bournival an expanded role, reuniting Pacioretty, Desharnais and Gallagher (let’s not spoil the fun by talking about Douglas Murray and Brière).
Deciding to pass up veteran backup and all-world good guy Peter Budaj go with Tokarski, a 24-year-old who spent the year in the minors and made only two NHL starts (winning both, it has to be said), was a courageous move.
That he has now effectively announced it’s his net to lose is arguably more so.
The move may work, it may blow up in his face, but Therrien seems perfectly comfortable with his team as they travel to the newly remodelled Madison Square Garden.
That confidence evidently extends to the players.
“We are down two, and we are going on the road. Yeah. Obviously, we would have liked to have Game 2, but we can only worry about game 3,” Pacioretty said. “We’ve got to be better in Game 3. We have to make life difficult for their goalie, and if we do that, I like our team’s chances.”
Spoken like a man who wears capacious adult dungarees.