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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Already participants in hockey's most storied rivalry, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens cranked things up even higher last season.
There were two Montreal overtime wins in the first two games between the clubs at the Bell Centre, then a brawl-filled game in which the teams combined for 187 penalty minutes and goalies Carey Price and Tim Thomas squared off before the Bruins held on for an 8-6 win.
On March 8 in Montreal, Zdeno Chara laid a controversial hit on Habs winger Max Pacioretty that sent Pacioretty into the stanchion between the benches and left him with a severe concussion and broken vertebra, sparking a fiery reaction north of the border. Then the Bruins thrashed the Canadiens 7-0 in the supposed revenge game a couple of weeks later in Boston.
|Emotions run high when the Bruins and Canadiens get together, which could work to both teams' favor.|
All that led to a thrilling seven-game, first-round playoff series in which the Bruins erased a 2-0 series deficit and won three overtime games, including the Game 7 clincher.
Needless to say, there was no shortage of emotion between Montreal and Boston last season.
But in the early going this season, both teams are trying to find the necessary and consistent emotion to get headed in the right direction. So the home-and-home set that starts Thursday night at TD Garden and concludes at the Bell Centre on Saturday could be just what the doctor ordered.
"I would hope that that would be the case," Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said Tuesday. "Certainly that's come to mind when I look at the schedule.
"They're rivals, we've had some real good games and series with them, and all that history last year. There's always a reason to play well against Montreal, and I would hope that that happens again in the next two games."
In addition to opening the home-and-home, Thursday night's game is the first of four straight against Northeast Division opponents. Then starting Nov. 5, the Bruins play 11 games in 21 days. If they are to turn things around, this would be a good time to do it.
"It certainly is an opportunity to get back to where we want to be," Chiarelli said. "I'm always looking at these things closely. From the act-and-respond category, I give the team a little more slack when we're winning and I see stuff that I don't like. The margin is smaller now. We've set goals for ourselves, where we believe the team should be at certain points, and you look at this section in the schedule and we hope that we can take advantage of it."
For Chiarelli, the grace period after a short offseason full of Stanley Cup celebrations has ended. It's time for the team to deliver what its fans expect, a club capable of defending the Cup. Chiarelli will be paying close attention during this home-and-home, trying to see whether his team is where it needs to be as the season gets busier.
"It's unfortunate that we're going through this with the bulk of our games at home," he said. "I think our fans deserve better at this point, but having said that, I know our guys are fighting their way through this funk and it's my job to keep a close eye on them."
Much like Chiarelli, the players know they have an opportunity to finally break out of their funk and kick-start their season with two games against their hated rivals.
"It's crazy," winger Brad Marchand said of the rivalry. "Just from last year even in the regular season, we had a few ridiculous battles and right on through to Game 7 in overtime.
"So you can kind of see why it's gone back so long in history and how the fans enjoy it, and it means so much every time we play them. Every time you see you're playing against Montreal, you chalk it down on the calendar and you're always looking forward to it."
Marchand sees even more bitterness possibly developing with a home-and-home.
"Games like these are fun because they can create a bit of a rivalry where something might brew up in the first one and carry over to the second game," Marchand said. "Then if you lose the first game, you get a chance right away to redeem yourselves. But these games are always fun games to play in and hopefully we'll make the best of it."
As a rookie last season, Marchand used his skills as an agitator to become an instant hero with Bruins fans and a villain with Habs followers. He knows it will be his job to again agitate the Canadiens and draw some penalties.
"I've got to try to bring some energy and create some momentum for the team," Marchand said. "That's part of my role, and I have to do that."
Bruins center Patrice Bergeron agreed that the games against Montreal are not only a chance for the Bruins to shake their early-season woes but also to bury a team that has struggled out of the gate. The Canadiens had just one win in their first eight games and fired assistant coach Perry Pearn prior to their game against the Flyers on Wednesday night. The Habs then went out and beat Philadelphia 5-1.
"It is a big rivalry, and they're games that are always exciting and with a lot of emotion, so it could be something that we can use," Bergeron said. "We know they'll be ready and the emotion will be high.
"But that being said, we need to get up for all the games and be ready with the emotion and urgency to get those two points. We've always realized even early on that those two points are huge, and it's something we need to establish this year. It's a division game and they're huge points, especially at the end of the year when we look back. We don't want to get behind the eight ball, so obviously these are huge games."
Bergeron also noted that one need look no further than Game 7 of last season's Eastern Conference quarterfinals with the Canadiens to know that the Bruins can never assume the Habs are down and out. Montreal erased deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 before finally succumbing in overtime.
"It's a team that has never stopped playing and never stopped battling," Bergeron said. "Right now, they're like us, they didn't have the start they wanted, and they're going to come here and try and beat us. So it's going to be tough. It's always tough against Montreal."
So even though it's still October, given the states of both teams, this home-and-home could serve as a pivotal moment in the 2011-12 season.
"It's their first time in our building since the playoffs, and I'm sure that will be on their minds, revenge and all that, so it should be a great game and a good couple of games," forward Tyler Seguin said. "Obviously every time we play them, preseason, regular season or in the playoffs, it's a huge game.
"The fans and the media get into it, but it's big to us, too. It's a rivalry, and you do get up for those games. In that sense, we can try and feed off that emotion and hopefully get some consistency going here. But the key is, if we do that, to keep it going past these games and not just get up for games like this."
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.