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Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban reacts in a Boston Bruins empty net goal during the third period of Game 3 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game in Montreal April 18, 2011. REUTERS/Shaun Best (Shaun Best/Reuters)
Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban reacts in a Boston Bruins empty net goal during the third period of Game 3 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game in Montreal April 18, 2011. REUTERS/Shaun Best (Shaun Best/Reuters)

Habs agonizingly close to the edge of postseason cliff Add to ...

There is a long tradition in Quebec of cheeky radio pranks. And in the spring of 1996, a troupe of jokesters called a Montreal moving company.

Their request: Might the movers wish to be entrusted with the sacred and secret mission of transporting the Montreal Forum ghosts to the Canadiens' new home, then-known as the Molson Centre?

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We would, of course, be honoured, was the whispered, credulous - and on-air - response, which was followed by a discussion on how best to transport spectral entities.

As they prepare for a Game 6 on Tuesday that could see them eliminated from the playoffs by the hated Boston Bruins, the Canadiens may be permitted to wonder how different their lives would be had the spirits of Atwater Avenue been around to put their thumbs on the great celestial scales.

For the series between these two NHL teams has been so even that anodyne mistakes and providential bounces (ie. Michael Cammalleri's shot at an open net nicking the back of Bruins blueliner Zdeno Chara's calf in Game 5) have had a heavy influence on the outcome.

"Let's face it, it would be nice to get a break, a little bounce here - and that's not taking anything away from Boston," said centre Scott Gomez, who had two points and was plus-one in Montreal's two wins early in the series, and has only one assist and is minus-four in three consecutive losses. "But that's maybe been the difference because it's been so close."

Close? The teams have scored an identical number of goals, they've killed a nearly identical number of penalties, their shot total is in the same ballpark - although Boston has a clear lead in fortuitous happenings over the last three games.

Athletes are loath to chalk up failure to factors they don't control such as chance and luck - it sounds suspiciously like an excuse, and hockey players are expected to accept responsibility.

"All you can do is play the game as sound as you can, create the chances you can create, and try to limit what you can. After that, obviously bounces are going to go either way," said Habs captain Brian Gionta, who has one assist and is minus-five since a two-goal outburst in Game 1. "You get a bounce the wrong way, at some point along the way a mistake was made too."

Which is where attention to detail, the Habs' mantra this season, comes in: Focus on the little things to remove luck from the equation.

And the hope is industry and focus will be an antidote to the unforeseeable.

It will be a test: Boston has never won a series in which it has trailed 0-2, but it has an impressive 17-4 record when it is up 3-2.

The fabled ghosts never did make the short trip east to the Bell Centre, where the Habs have now lost nine of their last 12 home playoff games - and six in a row to Boston.

Montreal goalie Carey Price has lost seven consecutive playoff starts at home - he has given up eight of 11 goals to this point at the Bell Centre - but has only turned in one genuinely sub-par period. He also hasn't been especially fortunate (witness his clearing attempt in Game 3 that hit Bruins forward Mark Recchi near the net and bounced to Boston teammate Rich Peverley for the easiest goal of the latter's career).

But tempting though it is to dwell on intangibles like good fortune, there's no time and no point.

"You can't. That's hockey, that's sport in general," Gomez said. "When you're younger, you do. I finally just got over this pitch I threw to this kid, he hit a home run off me."

How old would Gomez have been in his moment of extra-innings misfortune? "I think I was 11," the 31-year-old said.

Come to think of it, maybe the temptation to ruminate is impossible to resist. Not that there aren't happy precedents to point to in the Montreal locker room.

Last year, the Habs were down 3-2 to the Washington Capitals in the first round, but won Game 6 at home after losing their first two there. In the second round, they were down 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins and managed to conjure up a win at home to push it to seven.

Cammalleri, who leads the Canadiens in playoff scoring again this season, scored early in both those games.

Such are the stakes, so even are the matchups, that the play of bottom-six forwards and third-pair defencemen has taken on disproportionate importance.

In Game 4, Montreal's third defensive pairing of Brent Sopel and Jaroslav Spacek was on the ice for the tying and winning goals. In Game 5, Montreal's third-line winger Jeff Halpern scored a vital goal and Boston's third-pair defenceman Tomas Kaberle set up his team's opening tally.

Then, there are the small errors, like a sloppy defensive rotation on Boston's overtime winner in Game 5, which suddenly become magnified. After all, the line between victory and defeat in the playoffs this season has been especially thin (only two first-round series have ended in fewer than six games, an indication that regular-season parity has carried through to the playoffs).

So trot out the clichés, there is no tomorrow, their backs are to the wall, no one wants to go home - the Habs stand on the brink.

"They say create your own luck," Gomez said. "It's right there, whoever is going to calm their nerves more … we've gone through it, if anything everyone's excited."

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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