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Montreal Canadiens celebrate in third period of game against Toronto Maple Leafs April 9, 2011 (MIKE CASSESE)
Montreal Canadiens celebrate in third period of game against Toronto Maple Leafs April 9, 2011 (MIKE CASSESE)

For Canadiens, experience trumps brute force in playoffs Add to ...

There will be talk of intimidation.

That the seeds of doubt are germinating. That maybe these guys are just too little or too squeamish for the job.

While it's true that the Montreal Canadiens aren't much of a physical match for the Boston Bruins, there is one often-overlooked category in which the Habs already have their historical rivals beat: playoff experience.

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It's not an easy thing to evaluate, and its importance can be overstated, but postseason stick time is a factor that several Habs players cited in last year's shocking first-round defeat of top-seeded Washington - at the time, one privately marvelled at defenceman Hal Gill's ability to keep the room loose before Game 7 against the Capitals.

In all, the Habs won five straight elimination games in 2010 before ultimately bowing out in Philadelphia in the conference finals, displaying a resiliency and a relentlessness that surprised both the Caps and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"The main thing is to learn from those guys, they've done it, they know what's required, and they're not stressed about it. It helps guys like me not to get too stressed out and be a little more confident," said David Desharnais, a 24-year-old rookie who is embarking on his first NHL playoff adventure.

And it's that elusive quality - call it poise, call it composure or self-assurance - that would suggest the Habs are a tough playoff nut to crack, even if their opponents have manhandled and thoroughly dominated them in the last two encounters in Boston, where the series opens Thursday.

"They're they favourites, they finished third and we finished sixth, but we don't have any kind of an inferiority complex," said winger Mathieu Darche.

The 34-year-old, an 11-year professional who had his NHL playoff baptism last season, said veteran influence is manifested in both subtle and obvious ways: "It's a gradual thing, it happens in little conversations. Sometimes it can happen at the team dinner the night before the game, you chit-chat."

When former general manger Bob Gainey retooled the Habs after their playoff sweep at the hands of the Bruins in 2008-09, he put heavy emphasis on acquiring players with Stanley Cup pedigrees: Gill, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Travis Moen have a combined five Cups. Boston's Mark Recchi and Shawn Thornton, who played with Moen in Anaheim, are the only Cup winners on their team.

This year, current Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier added Brent Sopel, who went the distance last season with the Chicago Blackhawks.

"When you've been through the complete battle from start to finish for those two months, it's a completely different experience. A lot of things are going to happen, and there are going to be guys who can relay information through it all," Sopel said. "It's a wide variety of things; it's going to be on the ice, off the ice, there's a lot of highs and lows in a game and in a series."

While experience alone doesn't account for last year's playoff success - Michael Cammalleri's goals, Jaroslav Halak's goaltending and crazy shot-blocking stats are a more persuasive explanation - coolness under pressure is something this team possesses.

And in a situation where they are facing a motivated and fearsome opponent, it can make the difference between keeping cool - not retaliating to a hit or a punch - and forgoing a power-play.

"You have to be smart, don't just run around like a crazy person … maybe it will be their plan to come out in the first game and scare us. But we played against teams like Philly last year, Pittsburgh, even Washington tried to go after us," said defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, who played in a Cup final with Edmonton in 2006. "But we just survived, hung in there, and we finished them … if they want to play physical we can play physical."

As they prepare for a stiff test against the Bruins - the first postseason taste of the storied rivalry for all but five members of the current edition - the Canadiens are also mindful of the importance of focusing on their game plan.

The emphasis in practice has been on combativeness, speedy transition play and full-bore commitment - all of which will be essential in trying to stifle Boston's impeccably balanced offensive attack.

As Gionta, the team's captain, said, it's nice to have a group of players who have dealt with playoff pressure situations before - "It's a much quicker game and things happen a lot quicker in the playoffs; if you haven't been there before, it might catch you off-guard" - but in the end it won't matter if they're distracted from their game.

"Experience is a big thing," said Gionta, who won a Cup in New Jersey, "but at the end of the day, it doesn't win you a series, you still have to go out and you need to perform and you need to execute."

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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