Monday, April 19, 2004
Underdog Habs on verge of history
By Chris Stevenson Special to ESPN.com
It's down to one game now and the greatest challenge might not be from the opponent but from within.
The Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins meet Monday night in Beantown in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal. They find themselves there because the Canadiens have convincingly won the last two games by a combined score of 10-3, rising up after losing Game 4 in a bizarre and what could have easily been a team-destroying controversy.
Yanic Perreault and the Habs have never returned from a 3-1 deficit.
The Canadiens, seeded seventh to the Bruins' second, have rebounded from that disastrous loss in overtime in Game 4 -- when Alexei Kovalev was slashed on the hand and surrendered the puck for the winner -- and have continued to be the better team in this series. Kovalev was called out by both teammate Sheldon Souray and Canadiens coach Claude Julien for quitting on the play, but Kovalev shook it all off and has continued to be one of the Canadiens best forwards with five goals now in this series.
The Canadiens survived their crisis and now have to be considered the favorites heading into Game 7.
"It's probably the most important time to keep both feet on the ground and not get carried away," said Julien. "We have to keep playing the way we've been playing. The only message I have for the players going into Game 7 is leave it all on the ice. We know Boston is going to be fired up and I expect this will
be a tight, defensive game. But we've shown all year we can handle adversity. I think we have to take advantage of the good things that have happened to
our hockey club and build on it. We're going to fight like dogs."
The Canadiens, the most storied and decorated franchise in hockey, will be trying to make more history tonight. It might be tough to believe, but they have
never come back to win after being down 3-1 in a series before.
The Canadiens overcame their crisis in this series, now it is up to the Bruins to overcome theirs.
They have surrendered the momentum in this series and now have a controversy of their own heading into Monday night's season-deciding game.
Bruins captain Joe Thornton, pointless in this series, dodged the media Sunday and there has emerged in Boston serious questions about his leadership, including one respected columnist calling for him to surrender the Bruins captaincy heading into Game 7. Not only has he not been a factor offensively, but he has taken some undisciplined penalties.
Meanwhile, there have been rumors of Thornton taking game-day injections to overcome the effects of a rib injury.
"I feel comfortable. Hopefully, I'll have a better game next game," was all he could offer in the wake of the Bruins loss in Game 6.
Boston coach Mike Sullivan, trying to get some spark from his best offensive players, broke up his top combinations in Saturday's game.
He took Glen Murray off the "700-Pound Line" and had rookie Patrice Bergeron skating with Thornton and Mike Knuble. Murray moved over to play with Sergei
Samsonov and Michael Nylander. Samsonov was the Bruins' most consistent threat in Saturday night's game.
While offense from the Bruins' forwards has been wanting, the Canadiens have been getting an outstanding effort from the Kovalev-Saku Koivu-Richard Zednik
line and supporting offense from the likes of Yanic Perreault and even a goal from enforcer Darren Langdon in Game 6.
The Canadiens have also had the grit to match the likes of Bergeron. The knock on the Canadiens that their forwards were too small simply isn't true. The
additions this season of rookie Michael Ryder, Pierre Dagenais and Kovalev -- and the inclusion of Langdon -- have given the Canadiens more of a physical
presence up front. Habs forward Steve Begin, a gritty energy player, came back Saturday night after losing four teeth and needing 30 stitches to close up the
damage he sustained taking a run at Bergeron.
After a slow start to the series, Canadiens goaltender Jose Theodore has outplayed Boston rookie netminder Andrew Raycroft.
The Canadiens are refusing to admit they have the momentum in the series, as though it would be some sort of bad karma to say so.
"Momentum can be a funny thing," said forward Jim Dowd, who was part of the Minnesota Wild club which twice came back from 3-1 deficits last spring. "I
don't want to say we have it, but you can look at what's happened and draw your own conclusions."
If the Canadiens win Monday night, they will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference semifinal. If the Bruins win, they will face the Philadelphia Flyers.
While the Canadiens are trying to make history, the Bruins will be trying to repeat it. These two teams have met in Game 7s five times in their long history and while the Canadiens hold a 3-2 edge, the B's have won the last two (in 1990-91 and 1993-94).
The Canadiens found the right answers to their tough questions.
Can the Bruins do the same?
Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.