This is all you need to know about the upcoming Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens first-round playoff series that starts Thursday night at TD Banknorth Garden.
When the Bruins needed to match up against the Habs’ top line during last spring seven-game Montreal triumph, head coach Claude Julien had to ask his top offensive performer Marc Savard, a rookie Milan Lucic and a second-year player who he scratched three times as a wake-up call, Phil Kessel, to get the job done against the Andrei Kostitsyn–Tomas Plekanec–Alex Kovalev.
This time around, Savard can be spared the bulk of the playing time against the Habs’ new No. 1 trio of Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu and Kovalev. If the Habs are plotting for a score with their “Big 3,” Julien can turn to a line centered by a future All-Star and a two-way force in Patrice Bergeron, or one led by a more-mature, extra-experienced David Krejci, or even one that follows the lead of two-time Stanley Cup-winner Stephane Yelle. That’s a heck of a step up from Glen Metropolit and Petteri Nokelainen, two players who played prominent playoff roles last season when Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew were injured.
On the wings, instead of a near-extinction Glen Murray and the enigmatic Peter Schafer, Julien can call on the 20-goal scorer Kobasew, the near-30-goal-scorer Michael Ryder and, of course, an even more grown-up Lucic and Kessel. This time around, it’s the Habs who’ll be leaning on an unproven rookie (Matt D’Agostini), an unproductive veteran (Christopher Higgins), a one-dimensional physical presence (Georges Laraque), and — ironically, Metropolit.
The safe money is on Julien using Bergeron’s line with Kobasew and future Hall-of-Famer Mark Recchi to chase the Koivu line around. If that’s the case, they’ll be ready.
“That’s a heck of a line. They’re a great line, and really at the end they did a really great job of carrying them,” Recchi said. “They got hot and obviously I know Saku’s a wonderful player and is a great leader and a very skilled player. And obviously Kovalev, as well, and Tanguay. It’s a heck of a line. If that’s what Claude decides to do, we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
But that workload should be lessened both on the players and Julien and his staff. There really doesn’t have to be much of a chess game here because the Bruins can trust any of their top three lines to play solid, responsible hockey against the Habs. And with Montreal stocking that one line with its best three offensive performers, Boston can continue to spread out the minutes, roll each of its lines shift after shift and the players can preserve their legs for their attack time.
Since last spring, the Bruins’ roster has progressed to the point it could win the conference’s top seed. Meanwhile, hindered by a serious injury to Robert Lang and also stifled by the lack of development by Sergei Kostitsyn and the drop-off of Higgins, Montreal was barely an eighth seed.
Depth up front is the biggest difference between these two teams right now. And it’s the biggest reason this is going to be a short series in Boston’s favor.