The Montreal Canadiens a frustrating team.
The team carries one of the league's best goaltenders, a superstar two-way defenceman, and one of the NHL's foremost snipers on the left wing. Accompanied by some savvy veteran leadership, promising young players, and reliable depth, the Canadiens are a team talented enough to win their conference and put up a fight in the playoffs.
Of course, for all their merits, the Canadiens have almost demonstrated some critical flaws. Injuries, like that of Alex Galchenyuk, have proven inconvenient to a team having difficulty scoring. More importantly, the Habs have preposterous propensity for misusing the talent they do have available to them, putting players out of position, employing them in systems ill-suited to their skills (and to success in general). When a player who is so apparently one of the worst in the entire league is playing on a nightly basis, something is broken.
The sum of all of this is a team whose performance ranges from frustratingly inconsistent to despairingly incompetent. Coming off their worst stretch of the season, the Habs managed to stymie the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, earning a shutout victory thanks some timely goals and the play of team MVP Carey Price. Against a shallow team like the 'Canes, a period's strong work and a sprinkling of luck was enough to earn a victory. Against the one of the league's best teams, the Habs are going to need better than that.
When the score is tied, only the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning have possessed the puck more often than the Bruins among Eastern Conference teams. In all-around hockey acuity, however, the Bruins are in another league, offering a lethal mix of quality goaltending, strong defensive play, and a balanced offensive attack. This formidable talent, which mixes nicely with Boston's other collective personality traits, is a big part of what makes disliking them so effortless.
Expressing a healthy hate for the Habs biggest rivals is a tradition that has in recent years, coinciding with some great playoff battles and the relative competitiveness of each squad. Even though the Habs have slipped this year, the rivalry has become no less intense. In fact, the Canadiens struggles have added another dimension to Boston-Montreal saga - jealousy.
Compare the rosters of these two teams. Tuukka Rask is no slouch, but Carey Price is his superior. P.K. Subban is better than any member of the Bruins' defence corps. Boston is a top five offensive team, but no single Bruin can match the scoring prowess of Max Pacioretty. The factors that set these two teams apart are almost entirely controllable, and the decision making of the Bruins' brass looks like the difference between basking in first in the division, and the Canadiens one-legged run toward the playoffs.
Head coach Claude Julien knows how to deploy his roster, and he's kept his players in consistent roles game in and game out. His job has been made easier by GM Peter Chiarelli, who hasn't crippled his coach with critical weak spots in the same way that Marc Bergevin has. When one considers that the Habs had all of this, and they had it less than twelve months ago. There's only one word - envy.
The Canadiens could beat the Bruins tonight. Carey Price could steal the show, P.K. Subban could shut down the Bruins' best while forcing play in the opposite direction, and Max Pacioretty could use his patented high slot snipe to his team's advantage.
Whether the Habs win or lose, there's still a great deal of work to be done to reclaim the competitive, well-run team that played at the Bell Centre last spring. And whether the Habs win or lose, the Bruins will still be symbolic of so much that Montreal is trying to achieve. When rival becomes role model, it's nothing short of maddening.
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