MONTREAL — Here are five questions, and my answers, concerning the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens as they head into tomorrow night’s Game 4 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at Bell Centre.
1. Does Montreal have a better game than the one it displayed in Game 3?
The short answer: no. The longer answer (of course) is that the Habs’ best effort of the series produced the same result as the first two games — a defeat. Now that they’re down 0-3, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to muster enough energy for 60 minutes that’ll be strong enough to take down the Bruins. And while I find fault in a lot of the Habs’ roster as it’s constituted, you can’t really blame the team’s construction for its failures when you consider some of Montreal’s top players are on the shelf. Without Andrei Markov, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider and Alex Tanguay — or similarly skilled skaters — no team could be expected to win a playoff series against one of the deepest teams in the league. With unrestricted free agency waiting in the wings for 10 of these Habs, plus a chance that the team will be sold and/or head coach and general manager Bob Gainey will be shown the gate, Game 4 has the makings of a potential funeral and a bitter end to the 100th anniversary season of the most celebrated franchise in the NHL.
2. Now that Milan Lucic is back, who sits?
Head coach Claude Julien admitted he has a tough decision on his hands now that Lucic is back from his suspension and Byron Bitz has proven his nerves are as steel-strong as his play on the forecheck. There’s some media talk that maybe Blake Wheeler gets the seat in the press box. But that’s just nuts. Wheeler, who lacks the grit Bitz brings, still adds so much to the Boston cause with his speed and skill. He paid his dues for 81 games in the regular season and has done nothing to hurt his cause in this series. If anything, the only lineup alteration I would make from Games 1 and 2 is leave Wheeler on his Game 3 line alongside David Krejci and Michael Ryder, put Lucic on Marc Savard’s line and drop P.J. Axelsson back to the fourth line. But status quo works too.
3. Who gets the start in net for Montreal?
It might be hard for “kings of overreaction” here in Montreal, but Carey Price has not cost the Habs this series. And there have been glimmers of the championship-caliber goaltender Montreal thinks it will have in a couple years here and there against the Bruins. Most goaltenders would look bad playing behind an injury-ravaged, under-talented club like the Habs have right now. It’s time for the Habs to look toward the future, and one of the few players that will be back for years to come is Price. So to not let him finish what he has started in this series would be an unnecessary blow to his confidence. Even in defeat, Montrea has the chance to establish Price as its ‘man’ in the crease.
4. Does Manny Fernandez get the start in Game 4?
One reporter mentioned this to me today, and I won’t reveal his name for fear his inbox would be barraged with hate mail (not to mention the guys in the white coats would probably accompany him across the border tomorrow). Tim Thomas is in a groove. And if he wins Game 4, there’s a chance the Bruins won’t play again for as long as nine days. That would mean nearly two weeks without activity if he sat for Game 4. Fernandez has been practicing hard, keeping his head up and staying ready. He had plenty of practice preparing without playing in the regular season. So the bench is where he should stay. Basically, he should be behind glass that read ‘break, only in case of emergency.’ Thomas gives the Bruins the best chance to win regardless of the game differential in the series. Enough said.
5. Will Montreal try to physically leave the type of mark on Boston that could hinder the Bruins’ chances in future rounds?
Outside of the play between the whistles, I wouldn’t think so. Even though there were plenty of cheap shots in Boston, the Habs showed more restraint in Game 3 on their home ice. I have a feeling Gainey talked to his team about staying on the right side of that fine line between physical play and dirty tricks. If you’re around a guy like Gainey, some of his class has to rub off sooner or later. I suspect there will be hits galore for 60 minutes or more. If the Bruins win, as always, the post-series handshake will be cordial. And in a weird way the Habs might want Boston to succeed in future rounds because of the respect the Bruins have earned in this series.