Bruins ready for crucial battle vs. Habs

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- It has been dubbed the Boston Massacre game.

On Feb. 9, 2011, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens produced an epic Original Six battle that featured 182 minutes in penalties as gloves, sticks and blood littered the ice surface. In the end, the Bruins emerged with an 8-6 victory.

The Bruins are at their best when they play with that physical edge, and they proved it that night by completely beating up the Habs. It was another chapter added to an already impressive rivalry.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, when they visited the Bell Centre on March 8, they couldn't reproduce their previous matchup against the Canadiens as Montreal took it to Boston, 4-1. During the game, however, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara injured the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty on a hit that was later deemed a clean play by the NHL, so Chara was not suspended.

The Montreal organization was furious with the league's ruling. Canadiens fans were livid and staged a protest. There was even a ridiculous criminal investigation opened by the Montreal police.

Everything that has occurred in the past two meetings between the Bruins and Canadiens should make for an entertaining game when the clubs complete the season series Thursday night at TD Garden.

Habs advisor and former GM Bob Gainey was incognito and attended the Bruins game against the Devils on Tuesday at the Garden, likely doing advance scouting. Montreal's press corps attended the Bruins practice on Wednesday at Ristuccia Arena. There are even rumors that Youppi, the Canadiens' mascot, put a hit out on Blades.

For all the off-ice nonsense, both teams are completely focused on the task at hand. After all, the Bruins have only a three-point lead on the Canadiens for the top spot in the Northeast Division.

"It's a rivalry and it's been that way for many, many years," said Bruins pugilist Shawn Thornton. "There's a little bit of juice when we play these guys all the time, but these are exciting games to play in."

While the rest of the hockey world sees this final regular-season matchup as a possible prequel for the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Bruins players are focused on a 60-minute effort against the Canadiens on Thursday.

"Playoffs is playoffs, and it's a lot different than the regular season," said Bruins assistant captain Mark Recchi. "It's an important game division-wise. There is some significance to the game, and we know that. It's important that we go out and play the style we need to play to be effective."

Montreal has proven this season to be a tough opponent because of its finesse style versus Boston's physical play.

The Bruins are 1-3-1 this season against the Canadiens, and 7-6-5 in the past 18 games.

"It's funny, it seems like anytime we play Montreal, they always plays their best game," said Bruins forward Milan Lucic. "I don't know what it is; it always seems like they're getting the bounces. It hasn't been all luck because they've worked hard to get those wins against us. It's always a challenge playing against them. We have to be ready and we need guys to step up because this is going to be like a playoff atmosphere."

Boston needs to keep its momentum going from Tuesday's victory over the New Jersey Devils; Montreal is coming off a 2-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

"We haven't played well against them, and they've played well against us," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "It's something that hopefully we can build on [Tuesday's] performance and effort, and hopefully it'll be a better result for us [Thursday]."

If, by chance, these teams face off against each other in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Thursday's game could set the tone for that matchup.

There are a lot of difference scenarios that can happen between now and then, but the Bruins have a chance to put some much-needed space between themselves and the Canadiens in the Northeast Division.

"We're focused on winning the game [Thursday] because we know what it means in the standings," Julien said. "You can either let them get right back behind you to within a point or spread that a little bigger and make it even tougher for them to catch up to us. Based on that, it's important for us to be ready to play well because we haven't played well against this team this year."

There's no doubt one of the reasons the Bruins fell flat in Montreal on March 8 was the home-ice advantage for the Canadiens. The Bruins are looking for their fans to do the same Thursday night at the Garden. In fact, many times in the past when the fans have been fired up before the game, Bruins players have heard the crowd noise from the dressing room and have admitted it gets them fired up.

"There's nothing better than feeding off your home crowd. We have to do whatever we can to feed off that crowd," Lucic said. "There's going to be a lot of energy in the building and I'm sure it's going to be a lot of fun."

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.