It must be written down in some great celestial rulebook, there can be no such thing as an uneventful meeting between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins.
The latest entry in the annals?
Boston forward Milan Lucic making a coarse sexual gesture and lifting an invisible Stanley Cup in the direction of fans as he entered the penalty box with less than a minute to play in Thursday’s home opener.
He’d been sent there, livid, after a contentious boarding call involving nemesis Alexei Emelin, who moments earlier got away scot free with a similar play on Simon Gagné (Emelin also clattered Lucic to the ice with a hard check on his first shift of the game).
It was petulant and rude, to be sure, but at least he refrained from attacking Emelin’s nether regions with his stick as he did last season; it was up to Brad Marchand to step into the breach, zestfully pitchforking former Junior Team Canada teammate P.K. Subban in the groin (somehow Subban got whistled for embellishment).
Judging by the punishment meted out on Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville for grabbing his crotch in a game last April ($25,000 fine), Lucic should be lighter in the wallet once the league considers the evidence. (Ed's note: The NHL fined Lucic $5,000 on Thursday afternoon – the maximum fine without first holding a disciplinary hearing.)
As is often the case with NHL discipline, the jurisprudence is not consistent.
Under the previous collective agreement, former Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference received a $2,500 sanction after flipping the fickle finger of fate at the Bell Centre crowd in the 2011 playoffs; the previous season James Wisniewski, then of the New York Islanders, was hit with an eight-game suspension for making a more extravagantly obscene gesture in a game against the rival Rangers.
In truth, there was lots of iffy judgment to go around Thursday – a fan was reportedly ejected for shining a laser pointer at the ice.
Boston goalie Tuukka Rask told reporters afterward he wasn’t affected by it, although he must have been tempted to claim otherwise; the reigning Vezina winner gave up five goals before being lifted in the third, he now has a career .902 save percentage in Montreal and a 3-11-3 regular season record against the Habs.
The upshot is the Canadiens are now four up and one down to start the season; it may seem a little churlish to look for flaws in the paint job of such a smooth-running machine.
But as the great philosopher Yoda might say, pick nits we must.
Early-season hockey is seldom of the highest standard, but we’re reaching the point where the Habs’ frailties are both manifest and repetitive, it’s a topic that will need to be addressed.
The Boston Bruins may have lost Thursday’s tilt between the bitter rivals 6-4, it doesn’t mean the Habs had their way with them.
For long stretches of this game, Montreal was befuddled by Boston’s aggressive forechecking and diagonal, against-the-grain attacking passes.
The Bruins’ two even-strength goals in the second period were the result of blown assignments or passive defending – on Carl Soderberg’s goal to make it 2-2, Emelin found himself on the wrong half of the ice, P.K. Subban fell as he tried to corral the puck, Alex Galchenyuk over-skated his check.
On Loui Eriksson’s go-ahead goal, a turnover allowed Chris Kelly to whip a cross-ice pass to defenceman Torey Krug, who artfully rounded Montreal defenceman Mike Weaver and fired a pass to the far side of the net where Tomas Plekanec had his back to the play; Eriksson still had work to do to redirect the puck as it reached the inside of Plekanec’s right skate. He did it.
The miscues didn’t matter in the end, but they are symptoms a recurring problem, the Habs have generally been messy in their end and have allowed 18 goals through five games (to say nothing of the spurned scoring chances in the slot), which is not going to get it done.
“It’s game five, so we know it’s a process, the level we want to be at for the end of the year is not where we are now . . . no matter if you win or lose, you have to get better,” said winger Brendan Gallagher.
“Not every game’s perfect, we wish we could have jumped on them a little earlier but just like the other wins you love the compete level for 60 minutes,” added Montreal winger Max Pacioretty, who scored Montreal’s first goal in an eventual 6-4 victory over a team that had played the previous night and didn’t get into their hotel until the wee hours of Thursday morning.
Despite yielding four times, Habs goalie Carey Price was mostly sharp in this game – although he would have prevented Boston’s final goal had he been able to squeeze Lucic’s routine wrist shot with six minutes to play in the third rather than allowing it to dribble to Gagné at the side of the net.
In four starts he has an .861 save percentage. This is not strictly his fault.
Beyond zone defence at even-strength, Montreal is still finding its way on the penalty kill (they gave up their fifth power-play goal of the year in just 21 opposition chances, a notable strength last season is a liability in the early going). At least they snapped an 0-for-14 power-play drought.
The Habs’ defensive pairings have provided uneven service in the early going, and the Bruins kept the home team penned in its end for long stretches by challenging outlet passes from defencemen; at other points they bossed the neutral zone, forcing multiple turnovers (the Habs were charged with 16 official giveaways, which feels like an under-estimation).
Montreal’s breakouts and board play are still a work in progress, Gallagher said it’s primarily a function of working out the kinks and players adapting to one another’s tendencies.
After giving up seven goals in Tampa on Monday, the coaches’ message was less about systems than it was motivation.
“When you give up seven it’s not tactical, it’s more attitude. That was the main message for us: to stop making mental errors, stop helping the other team. I thought at times we did that way better tonight,” Gallagher said. “But we can be better . . . to break the puck out in this league you need five guys moving as a unit. We’re improving, but we can be better.”
The Habs were out-shot and out-chanced in this game, and once again had an indifferent start – they got into penalty trouble and at one point in the first were being out-shot 7-1.
Gallagher, who notched his first two-goal game in the NHL (“my little brother, he gives it to me all the time, finally I can tell him to shut up”), was a notable bright spot.
He and linemates Pacioretty and David Desharnais combined for eight points on the night, none uglier than Gallagher’s second goal, which caromed off Pacioretty’s stick, then Gallagher’s body before finding twine.
In the second, rookie Jiri Sekac scored his first NHL goal in front of his family, who had made the trip from the Czech Republic (“I saw my dad’s celebration, it was classic”), and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau scored his first goal for his hometown team less than 90 seconds later.
He would later add an empty-netter.
“You want everybody feeling good about themselves offensively, and that was definitely the case tonight,” Pacioretty said.
Another encouraging sign: the play of Montreal’s fourth line, whose members averaged nearly 13 minutes of ice time on Thursday.
That centre Manny Malhotra is a faceoff monster is well-established. That he could 58 per cent of his 19 draws on this night and lower his season average on draws speaks volumes (he’s won an amazing 65.1 per cent of his faceoffs in the early going, fourth-best in the league).
Malhotra’s skill and the grit offered by Brandon Prust – the two have effectively become Michel Therrien’s top penalty-killing unit and led all forwards in short-handed minutes Thursday – combined with Travis Moen’s penalty-killing ability and Dale Weise’ speed (Weise sat out) have given the coaches a rare gift: a fourth unit that can be trusted to play more than token minutes.
It will be interesting to see what the Habs can accomplish if they rediscover their defensive touch.
They’d be well-advised to do it soon.Report Typo/Error