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Friday, May 3, 2013
Sens-Habs rivalry caught case of the uglies

By Pierre LeBrun


MONTREAL -- A rivalry that existed only in name for 20 years now has a pulse. And plenty of hate.

Two opening playoff games in back-to-back nights between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens produced enough hits, controversy and verbal jousting to fill a reporter's notebook for a month.

Oh, and the hockey’s been pretty darn entertaining, too.

"It’s pretty neat," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who played in all those Battle of Ontario playoff series, said.

"It’s physical, there’s a lot at stake, it’s two cities that are close to each other," he added after Friday night’s 3-1 loss. "There’s been a few big hits already, and that’s what creates rivalries -- battling all over. You’ve got two teams who really want this, and you can tell."

Heck, even the two goalies have lost teeth in this series. Anything else this series could have possibly shoved into an opening 27 hours?

"It’s crazy. It’s the playoffs, and in Canada, hockey is part of our culture," Habs star blue-liner P.K. Subban, said. "It would have been special to be part of a Toronto-Montreal [series], being that I’m from Toronto, but being part of this one is just as great. And I don’t think it’s let anyone down so far."

Ryan White, Brendan Gallagher and Michael Ryder scored second-period goals Friday night as the Habs tied their first-round series 1-1 with a much-needed victory before the best-of-seven set shifts to Ottawa.

Game 2 was almost a secondary event to the drama unfolding off the ice in the morning.

The Habs took offense to comments from Senators coach Paul MacLean the night before in the wake of the devastating hit by Ottawa’s Eric Gryba that crushed Montreal center Lars Eller. MacLean mentioned that Canadiens defenseman Raphael Diaz made a risky pass that put Eller in a vulnerable position.

Which, by the way, was a position shared by others around the hockey industry as well.

Regardless, it didn’t sit well with the Habs, who were understandably shaken by the loss of a teammate in such a gruesome way.

"We don't really care about what that bug-eyed fat walrus has to say," Montreal winger Brandon Prust said of the Senators coach.

OK, then.

Habs head coach Michel Therrien also showed his anger Friday morning, saying MacLean’s comment was "inappropriate" and that it showed a lack of respect for Eller. After the game Friday night, Therrien didn’t back down.

"It was not about the hit, the NHL dealt with that; it was about the comment, the lack of respect," the Canadiens coach said. "That was the reason I was upset. And not only me -- everyone involved with our team was upset about that."

MacLean stood firm when asked again Friday morning about his opinion on the hit, but the NHL obviously didn’t agree, slapping Gryba with a two-game suspension in the afternoon.

I can tell you that Thursday night in St. Louis, the hockey people I also spoke with in the press box felt it was a legal hit with an unfortunate result.

But the league’s player safety group, in handing out a two-game suspension, felt the principal point of contact was the head, and thus a Rule 48 infraction.

To be fair, regardless of which side you’re on with the hit, it was not clear-cut.

What is clear-cut, though, is that the Sens and Habs are en route to what’s shaping up to be a dandy of a series.

"This is how it’s going to go: It’s going to be a tough series," Senators star blue-liner Erik Karlsson, who was held in check this night, said.

So far, the goalies have swapped first stars, and that’s a storyline that will continue to have a major bearing on the series.

Craig Anderson stopped 48 shots in Game 1, and you wondered if he would quickly get into the heads of the Canadiens, but the Habs made him look a little more human Friday night. Montreal could ill afford to allow Anderson to steal two games in a row before heading into Ottawa, all the while squeezing their sticks.

"He’s a very good goalie," Gallagher, who has tallied twice on him in two games, said. "He makes the saves he’s supposed to make. But that said, there’s always ways to score, always ways to get in front of him, create traffic and make it tough on him. It’s just a matter of doing that more and more as the series goes on."

The Canadiens got to him Friday night with a three-goal second period, while Montreal netminder Carey Price responded with a terrific effort in stopping 29 of 30 shots after getting beaten four times in Game 1.

"Carey Price was really good tonight," Therrien said in French after the game. "He made key saves at the right time, which allowed us to gain momentum."

As if losing Eller wasn’t enough, the Canadiens also played Game 2 without winger Max Pacioretty and captain Brian Gionta, both out with upper-body injuries. In came Colby Armstrong, Jeff Halpern and Gabriel Dumont, and the Habs didn’t bat an eye.

"It’s character," Therrien said. "We showed that tonight, and we’ve showed it all season long."

The Habs hounded the Senators for most of the game Friday night with a forecheck that produced turnovers, banging bodies with a purpose, led by the likes of White.

"I think they were all over us from the start," Karlsson, whose ill-advised backhand pass in front of his own net handed White the opening goal, said.

"When they got up 3-1 late in the second, it put us [in] a big hole, and it seemed like we didn’t have the push we had yesterday," Alfredsson added.

It’s a win the Canadiens needed more, but Therrien said he didn’t ask his players for a bounceback performance. Given his team's 50-31 shot advantage Thursday night in Game 1, the Habs coach had a simple message Friday before the game.

"I really like the way we played both games. I told our team before the game and this morning when I addressed them, 'I’m not going to ask you to bounce back,'" Therrien said. "'Play the same way. Keep playing the same way.' As a coach, it’s the only thing we could ask."