Friday, April 10, 2009

Are the Habs starting to crack?

Is this the face of an innocent man?

Last year, it was the dive. This year, it's the dirty hit.

We knew something was different about this version of the Montreal Canadiens. At first, it seemed a charming kind of ineptitude, such that the much-hyped centennial season has become an extended comedy of errors.

But now it appears that the league's most narcissistic franchise has taken a darker turn.

A club that once prided itself for playing quick, clean, beautiful hockey has now become a stepchild to the Flyers and Ducks. Perhaps the past 15 years have weighed too heavily on the franchise, as they have endured a relative eternity of futility while waiting for their 25th Cup. But something seems to have snapped in their collective psyche of late. This season was supposed to be a celebration of all things Canadien, but it's turned into a bizarre backlash of misbehavior, under-performance, and frustration.

It was never more obvious than when Josh Georges ran Patrice Bergeron from behind.

Bergeron, a Quebec native, has spent most of the past two seasons recovering from a severe concussion. His injury was the result of a cheap run by Randy Jones of the Flyers -- a team the Habs have historically held in low esteem. This season Bergeron is a frontrunner for the Masterton Trophy. He has had no part in past Bruins/Habs pugilism, has never been in a fight, and has averaged about 20 PIM per season in the NHL. During the first period of last night's game he scored a clean, easy goal while undefended near the crease.

So Georges' hit from behind, which sent Bergeron sprawling face-first toward the crossbar and right post, was an outright declaration that the Canadiens have jettisoned any pretension of integrity or class. Had Bergeron been 6 inches forward, he'd likely be in a hospital bed this morning.

From that point on, the game changed in tone.

The rest of the match was scarred by countless scrums, the most significant of which included: Mike Komisarek's unnecessary run at a Bruins forward after time had expired in the first period, setting off a melee before intermission; Habs purse-snatcher Ryan O'Byrne provoking Bruins brawler Shawn Thornton with a cheap shot to the back, then falling to the ice in the "turtle" position as if he were a bookworm encountering the school bully after recess; and Komisarek blatantly hitting Milan Lucic from behind and then refusing to drop his gloves with either Lucic or Thornton.

The common factor in all of these incidents: Habs attempting to draw the Bruins into retaliatory penalties. More often than not, they succeeded.

We've seen this movie before. Last season, coach Guy Carbonneau instructed the Canadiens to dive repeatedly during their 7-game playoff matchup with the Bruins. Carbo knew that the dives would always turn in Montreal's favor -- either "earning" a power-play for the Habs (they won two games on PP goals) or in a worst-case scenario creating a favorable 4-on-4 situation (they scored twice in exactly that scenario).

Last night, Montreal's cheap-shots had much the same effect. With a meaningless game well in hand, the Bruins lost their discipline. They negated upcoming power-plays, and in some cases (such as Komisarek's hit on Lucic) a Habs penalty suddenly became a 4-minute power play. The momentum shifted rapidly, and a 3-1 deficit became a 4-3 lead for the visitors.

Thankfully, things turned out right in the end. Boston, clearly the better team in every legal facet of the game, controlled the final period and won on the strength of Bergeron's spectacular hit-steal-and-pass in OT. But the Canadiens had accomplished their goal of earning a charity point and officially entering the playoffs through the back door. (ed: You know the NHL has changed when the Canadiens and their fans are in a celebratory mood because they lost to the Bruins in OT. It's perverse, and I almost feel sorry for them that the rules have created such a scenario.)

Montreal celebrates a charity point.

But the hockey gods have a strange sense of humor -- Boston and Montreal are set to face off again in the first round, barring any changes in the bracket. If that happens, be prepared for at least 12 periods of the same from Montreal.

For their part, the Bruins no longer have a good reason to get involved in this kind of nonsense. They have nothing to prove to the Habs after crushing them 5-0-1 in the season series. Barring a dramatic change in fortune, they'll easily dismiss their rivals in the playoffs and exorcise the demons of the past 3 matchups. And frankly, their sights are set a little higher than merely squeaking out a 7-game victory over an 8th seed, just to be dismissed in the next round.

Boston might wear the black jerseys, but there's no question which team is currently wearing the black hat in this rivalry. Claude Julien's greatest task in the playoffs will be to teach this young team that a moment of anger is fleeting, but a convincing victory over the Habs will last forever.

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