Not to get too egg-heady here, but there’s a legitimate line of philosophical inquiry around the question of whether it requires more toughness to absorb punishment than to fearlessly dole it out.
Former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson famously observed that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. The hockey-viewing public is about to find out whether the Montreal Canadiens’ strategy can hold post-thump.
There is evidence it might.
Witness defenceman Mike Weaver, all five-foot-ten of him (if you trust the Habs’ official height listing, which strikes a blow for optimists everywhere) taking a gloved fist in the mush from six-nine Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara on Monday night.
“He has a good right,” Weaver smiled after the game. “That’s Boston for you.”
It’s not supposed to work this way. A smaller, scrawnier group of men is meant to be cowed by power and strength. You’re supposed to be able to lean on the little guys, and watch them wilt under the strain.
Unless they don’t.
It’s no foregone conclusion, but if the Canadiens – who aren’t as diminutive as people think, but never mind that – somehow prevail in Game 7 against the bigger, badder Bruins on Wednesday, the hockey world may have to reconsider its conventional appreciation of toughness.
Relentlessness and flatly refusing to go away are apparently desirable qualities in a team; presumably that is what NHL types mean when they talk about character, and the Habs seem to have a lot of it.
“It doesn’t mean everyone’s dropping their gloves and fighting, but our guys don’t back down. They keep getting right back up and in your face, going to the net hard, hitting hard and getting to pucks first,” said Habs winger Brandon Prust, who has led the team in fighting majors the past two years. “We’ve got a lot of small guys that won’t back down from anything.”
There’s no feasible way the Habs could hang with Boston if the Stanley Cup playoffs were about who is most proficient at line brawls, but when fighting disappears in spring – there have been no formal scraps in the series to this point – Montreal has demonstrated it can compete with better-pedigreed teams such as Boston.
Against the higher-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning, the Habs’ five-ten-and-under group – Daniel Brière, Brendan Gallagher, David Desharnais and Brian Gionta – managed to generate 12 points in four games.
In the first five games against top-seeded Boston, they combined for only six.
But when it mattered the most on Monday, they were constantly around the puck; if the Habs are to win Game 7, they’ll need to be again.
Desharnais notched a garbage-time assist on Thomas Vanek’s empty-netter, but more important, he made a desperation lunge to prevent a goal, and played a diligent defensive game as he has all series.
Gallagher, who had several open looks, and Gionta were both on the ice for at least one Habs goal – even if neither got a point – and Brière had the best possession numbers of any forward on the team, although he played a modest 10:01.
With a smaller, faster lineup – speedy defenceman Nathan Beaulieu subbed in for the massive, but slow, Douglas Murray and Brière came in for the heftier Travis Moen – the Habs managed to out-hit the Bruins over the course of the game and keep the puck-possession battle respectable at even strength.
It also bodes well that goalie Carey Price is in imperious form and that some bigger players – physically and symbolically – delivered their best efforts of the series Monday (this is a reference, of course, to Max Pacioretty and Vanek, who combined for three goals and four points).
The Habs are even confident enough to take a few liberties; Dale Weise flexed his arm at Milan Lucic (who had done the same at P.K. Subban in Game 5) without anything much of consequence happening.
“It’s gamesmanship. We’d had it done against us,” shrugged Gionta, a Cup winner who has plenty of Game 7 experience.
It includes the 2011 defeat in Boston, where Gionta hit the post on a two-on-one in overtime; the memory has mostly been banished.
“You don’t redeem yourself,” he laughed. “When things happen like that you’d rather have them turn out differently, but you can only play it over in your mind so long.”
Instead, Gionta, the Habs’ captain and chief lead-by-example guy, is focusing on preparing on the challenge ahead and the battle that will be required to overcome it.
It could get intense. Boston coach Claude Julien issued a reminder after Game 6 that the Habs often give as much as they get.
“I'm not portraying ourselves as innocent here. I'm just saying it takes two teams to tangle and that's what happened,” Julien said.
The late-game melee – where Weaver encountered Chara’s right fist – was primarily the doing of Montreal defenceman Andrei Markov, who tripped Chara, then pitchforked him in a notoriously delicate anatomical region.
The Bruins understandably took exception to this – although seeing Lucic, who has done exactly the same thing to his fellow professionals twice in the past two months, fly off the handle was somewhat ironic.
“I think that’s the new thing now,” Brière said Tuesday. “Not just here in our series, but all around our league. Nothing gets done and everybody has the green light to do it. We might as well use it, too.”
After the game, Subban evidently decided it would be a good idea for him to shoulder the pressure of Game 7, saying that he’s eager to silence the crowd and top his late tying goal in 2011. “I wanted to put another dagger in but I didn’t get my opportunity. I’m sure I’ll get my opportunity this time.”
Players are constantly warned not to poke the bear when it comes to Boston, but the reaction from the Bruins was muted – in public at least – and in any event, Montreal doesn’t appear to have any particular fear of riling their opponents.
“Other than screaming at us there’s not much else [the fans] can do. If at the end of the night we win, they’re probably going to be very quiet and walking home,” said Brière, a childhood Habs fan who grew up loathing the Bruins. “That would be the ultimate reward for us. But we have to make that happen. We can’t just say it.”