Lots of people are able to cope with pressure; those who are able to laugh out loud in the face of it form a much smaller sub-set.
With the Boston Bruins cycling, pressing and leaning on the Montreal Canadiens, trying desperately to cut into the Habs’ slim one-goal lead in the third period of Game 7, Montreal goalie Carey Price skated over during a television timeout.
“They had us hemmed in there a bit, he comes back to the bench ... sometimes you see goalies yelling at their defencemen or giving the team a hard time, he comes over and cracks jokes, he’s winking,” said Habs winger Max Pacioretty, who scored the winner in a 3-1 triumph.
Not only was he jesting during crunch time, the quiet, almost comically relaxed netminder stood up in the dressing room at the second intermission – the Bruins had drawn to within 2-1 with a late power play – and encouraged his troops to focus on the here-and-now and occupy it completely.
“It’s ultra-rare,” Price smiled afterward when asked about how often he speaks in the room. “It’s a philosophy I think we’ve lived by all season long: short-term memories, living in the moment, that’s what it’s all about.”
On this evidence, the New York Rangers, who will be the Canadiens’ conference final opponents beginning Saturday, will have a lot of work to do to beat Price and the plucky Habs.
Dreams of the first Stanley Cup final in Montreal since 1993 remain still very much alive.
There was a time, of course, when a callow Price used to give defencemen the death stare, and when he got into it with defencemen – an episode with veteran Andrei Markov a few years back pops into mind.
But that goalie, who was associated with playoff defeats, and with meltdowns in key times, is gone.
He’s been replaced by a man who has now won all five elimination games he’s played this year; three of them were playing behind Team Canada in Sochi, two of them behind the much less-heralded Habs, the results were identical.
He has given up a total of two goals in those games, he has saved 124 of 126 shots.
“He’s a leader. He’s the guy on this team,” Pacioretty said.
After defeating the Bruins, the NHL’s best regular-season team, the 2011 Stanley Cup champion, and the 2013 finalist, Price reserved precisely zero credit for himself.
“These guys have played very hard, they’ve sacrificed their life and limb, just about, to block shots, taking hits to make plays,” he said. “Winning’s hard, it’s the hardest thing to do. It comes at a price, and these guys are paying it.”
That much is true.
Against a much bigger, meaner and more experienced team, the Habs triumphed.
And it was their little guys who carried them there.
Daniel Brière, a healthy scratch two games ago, came out for his first shift, scrambled a faceoff, latched on to Brandon Prust’s pass – Prust, Montreal’s hardest player, had won a battle for a loose puck – and set up Dale Weise (yes, you read that correctly) for the all-important opening goal.
In the third, he added an insurance marker that banked in off the mammoth Zdeno Chara’s left skate, the celebration from the Habs was audible in the stunned TD Garden “It’s a pretty wild feeling, as you can tell with my voice,” he croaked afterward.
The childhood Habs fan will cherish the memory forever; “I learned when I was probably four or five years old to hate [the Bruins].”
The play that turned the game in the second period was also spurred by David Desharnais, listed at 5-foot-7 in the Montreal Canadiens’ game program.
Markov kept a puck alive at the left point in the Boston zone, and Desharnais used his stick and tight turning radius to outwit a pair of Bruins, strip the puck and set in on Tuukka Rask.
The native of Laurier-Station, Que., has a quasi-telepathic understanding with Pacioretty, so he didn’t even really need to look to know he’d be before sliding a hard pass that the latter one-timed into the top of the net.
A few shifts later, as the Bruins cranked up the pressure after drawing to within a goal, Desharnais controlled the puck in the Boston end, by himself, for nearly an entire shift.
He twisted along the boards, he turned, he held defenders off with his hips, it was merely one chapter in a towering performance (with Montreal on the power-play at the start of the third, Desharnais battled Chara to a draw in a puck battle near the Boston net, then, at mid-period, managed to emerge with the puck at the opposing blue line despite three Bruins being on the scene).
As Pacioretty put it “people say you can’t win in the playoffs with a small team, but we’re also a fast team.”
They are also a team that felt slighted and disrespected by what Brière called the Bruins’ “antics”; Milan Lucic thumping his chest after an empty-netter, Shawn Thornton squirting water at P.K. Subban, Lucic flexing his biceps at Weise.
Subban had goaded the Bruins fans after Montreal’s win in Game 6, saying his greatest wish was to silence the building that hates him the most in the NHL. In the end, he played a more peripheral role in the victory (albeit a crucial defensive one, top Bruins centre David Krejci was held scoreless once more), but the effect was the same.
Something more than a game was won.
“There were no kind words in the [post-game] hand-shakes ... what you have to realize is respect was earned. Whether you think it was or not, no matter what anybody says, or not, they have to respect us,” Subban said. “And people have to respect us.”