Success draws all manner of imitators, but there’s nothing quite like the genuine article.
And in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins were first to market with the big-bodied, physical, but nevertheless skilled, approach that others have sought to emulate.
That includes division rivals like the Buffalo Sabres – you can draw a straight line between the night Boston’s Milan Lucic ran goalie Ryan Miller and Buffalo’s acquisition of enforcer John Scott – and, lately, the Bruins’ oldest and bitterest rival, Montreal.
In the summer of 2012, the Canadiens signed rough-housing forward Brandon Prust to a free-agent deal. This summer, they acquired George Parros, the first bona fide heavyweight they’ve employed since the ill-fated Georges Laraque experiment.
“It’s a man’s game, it’s become a heavy and you see the heavy teams, they’re having a lot of success. You can see with those additions they’ve definitely bolstered up their lineup, they’ve added size and strength and it seems to be working for them,” said Lucic, a behemoth forward who embodies the mix of brawn and skill all general managers are after. “You can talk about the copy-cat thing, what other teams are trying to do, for us, the focus is on what we’re trying to do. … Playing, I guess you could say, that big, bad Bruins style of hockey that’s given us success in the past.”
Unusually, the Habs had engaged in more fights than the notoriously flinty Bruins going into Thursday’s game – they were second only to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL – and, true to form, Prust grappled with Boston’s Shawn Thornton in the second period.
A more common fact: it was the fifth consecutive occasion on which the old rivals had faced off with first place in the division on the line. In gutting out a 2-1 win, the Habs got their noses out front, if only until the Bruins make up their two games in hand.
As Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban said after the Habs recently disposed of another arch-rival, the Leafs: “These are games you don’t need to get up for.”
But the Habs desire to bolster their size and toughness isn’t the only way in which they’ve emulated a Boston recipe that has seen the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup final in two of the last three years.
The template, simply stated: Make sure you have a top-five goaltender, an all-world defenceman, a stud two-way centre (preferably two), an elite penalty kill unit, balanced scoring and a fast-skating, versatile fourth line.
The argument can be made Montreal is only one or two ingredients short, as their recent 7-0-1 string heading into Thursday attests.
If the Bruins have shown the way to the rest of the conference, the Habs are making a case that their surprise second-place showing last season was no fluke.
The play of youngsters Brendan Gallagher, Lars Eller – who seemed determined to make a physical statement in the early going Thursday – and Alex Galchenyuk augurs well, and speedy rookie Michael Bournival wouldn’t look out of place on Boston’s legendary third or fourth lines.
But until Thursday, they hadn’t played Boston head-to-head this season.
The Habs and Bruins had played eight consecutive one-goal games going into Thursday, an indication of how evenly matched the teams are – and of how heated their rivalry is. That it took until December for the teams to clash for the first time this season – Boston head coach Claude Julien euphemistically suggested that was “different” – suggests the distance between the old foes, which has often been close in recent years, is getting closer.
The 888th meeting in the history of the two teams (playoffs included) began with a video commemoration and moment of silence for former South African president Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday.
Barely four minutes later, the hush once again descended on the Bell Centre.
Habs winger Max Pacioretty, who suffered a fractured neck and concussion against the Bruins in March of 2011, hit defenceman Johnny Boychuk in a vulnerable position behind the Montreal net, the 29-year-old blueliner fell awkwardly into the boards and was unable to get up for several minutes.
Trainers from both teams quickly ran out to check on him, as did the Habs team doctor. Boychuk was taken out on a stretcher and on to a nearby trauma centre; the Bruins later said he was able to move his extremities without difficulty.
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