Cut off the oxygen and you’ll snuff out the flame, so the central question for the Montreal Canadiens now revolves around keeping the competitive fires burning at full blast.
After their defeat of bitter rival Boston it became clear the Habs were driven by a keen sense the Bruins didn’t treat them with the appropriate respect.
But how to get a decent hate on for the New York Rangers, their conference final opponent? Sure, the Habs and Blueshirts have had their moments – the 1979 Stanley Cup final comes to mind – but they haven’t met in the postseason since 1996.
Perhaps the Habs will once again affix the “respect” chip on their shoulder; the surest way to earn the rest of the league’s admiration involves reaching the Cup final.
These men may play a game, but they do it seriously, and with purpose, thus does respect become a rather large deal.
The speedy Canadiens are a club the hockey universe loves to hate.
The organization has a healthy self-regard, a record number of championships, rabid fans and wealth beyond reckoning.
Everyone resents beautiful, successful rich kids – it’s what makes the world go round.
They are also small, which is bad, and play a skill game, which shouldn’t be, but sometimes is.
And now they are one step away from playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time since they won it in 1993, the last time a Canadian team lifted the trophy.
No one in the Habs’ room was about to look that far ahead after sending the Bruins to their collective couch, but the objective is right there, in plain view, and Montreal’s players plainly believe they can reach it.
“If you can compete against a team that’s bigger, stronger, more experienced and find a way to win, you can compete against any team in this league,” is how P.K. Subban, who has never lacked for confidence, put it.
In the moments after Game 7 fourth-liner Dale Weise, who now has a Game 7 goal to put alongside an overtime winner from the first round – he’s a Cup final goal away from completing the driveway dreamer’s trifecta – stood in the visitors’ dressing room, clad in towels.
“We’re a resilient group,” he said.
That sounds like a banality, but it isn’t.
It’s the essence of the playoffs, and a much more elusive quality than you might expect.
By showing up their opponents on several occasions – Milan Lucic pounding his chest after an empty-netter; Brad Marchand grabbing Brendan Gallagher’s helmet in a scrum and flinging it down the ice; Shawn Thornton squirting water at P.K. Subban; Lucic flexing his bicep at Subban; rookie Dougie Hamilton suggesting Price has flaws – the Bruins merely gave the Habs a reason to give it a name and a voice.
Weise flexed right back in Game 6, and in Game 7 exacted the sweetest revenge.
Afterward, in the handshake line, Lucic is alleged to have used uncourtly language with Weise and Alexei Emelin and to have promised to do them harm next season.
“It’s a poor way to lose,” Weise said.
Lucic, somewhat predictably, didn’t appreciate what Weise had to say.
“It’s said on the ice so it will stay on the ice. If he wants to be a baby about it he can make it public,” said a visibly annoyed Lucic, who added “I don’t know what they’re talking about with disrespect.”
Basic schoolyard stuff, then, but this was more than just a hockey game; it was a new generation of Habs players asserting themselves.
“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.”
Beyond the respect of opponents, several Habs may have built up a personal reserve.
For instance, the coaches thought little enough of Daniel Brière’s game to make him a healthy scratch last weekend.
Despite playing just 8:06 in Game 7, he set up Weise’s opening goal and scored the insurance marker late in the third.
“It’s not a role I’m used to playing, but you do the best you can,” said the 36-year-old, who has 115 points in 118 career playoff games.
Another player whose stature was enhanced is Max Pacioretty, who scored momentous goals after being gently called out by coach Michel Therrien for his lack of production.
“It means a lot to me [to score], I’m a proud person,” he said.
Pacioretty insists he bears no psychic scars from the infamous 2011 Chara hit that broke his neck, but the look on his face post-game showed he took particular satisfaction at the result.
“They’re our measuring stick on how good we can be,” he said.
There can be no foregone conclusions at this stage of the postseason, and the Rangers match up evenly with the Canadiens.
More than anything, the Boston series has created the impression within the Habs’ room that they can be very good indeed.