It's very tempting to call Game 2 of the Canadiens Bruins series - a dominant 5-1 win by Boston - a masterpiece of coaching by the Bruins Claude Julien.
On the surface, the game looks to be as close to a perfectly coached and played playoff game as a team can put together.
The Bruins made few, if any mistakes in the win. Supporting evidence shows that Boston allowed the Canadiens few good scoring chances, keeping much of the shot firing activity to the outside lanes. Julien had the Bruins playing a very disciplined game as well, giving Montreal no powerplay time for the game's first 55 minutes. The Bruins did all that they had to do, in gaining a 2-0 lead by the end of the first period, and did all they needed to, in order to protect and add to it as the Canadiens stumbled for solutions until the contest was put out of reach.
In many ways, Julien's command of his troops can be termed masterful and the game itself near perfect from the Bruins side of things.
As an added benefit to him, Julien knows the Canadiens team very well, having coached more than half of their lineup, in addition to having coached against them now for three seasons. He knows and understands many of the Canadiens player's tendencies and surely has some insight into their current fragility.
In trying the beat the Canadiens, Julien sough to negate two aspects of Montreal's game - their powerplay and their overall team speed, which is cumulatively stronger than Boston's when employed to full capacity. While it does not take a rocket scientist to make those obsevations, it takes the coaching skills of salesman and psychologist to sell it and have it's neccessity be understood by 20 players across the board without fail.
In a rare and precious position to have amassed all that knowledge and utilize it against the team he once manned, Julien has made not one costly error in judgement so far in this series, and his team has a commanding deathgrip on Montreal's chances of winning the round.
In coaching terms, it is near brilliance, and "near" is suggested, because the man coaching across from Julien, is making leaps of faith that make it easier for him to succeed.
If Julien has had the masterstrokes so far, in doing nothing more than mental tinkering to tone down his team's collective overexhuberance, Bob Gainey has made a string of disasterous misjudgements that have helped Julien out a great deal.
Consider that heading into the final weeks of the season, Gainey had at his disposal likely the NHL's hottest trio of Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay. The three had never been united before, for fears their styles were too similar and that their styles did not mesh well together.
In honesty, the line has yet to play ten full games as a unit, and is still in it's infancy as far as fleshing things out goes. In theory, the more they would play together, the more in synch they should become. Not only has the line been killers on the powerplay, they are also abundantly skilled to draw opponants into penalty calls - a double edged weapon, so to speak.
Julien's tallest task in coaching against the Canadiens in this series, would have been in minimizing the line's damage, but Gainey essentially put sugar in his own gastank by removing Alex Tanguay from the line and substituting Georges Laraque.
Talk about putting a wedge into a spoked wheel. Julien couldn't have asked for more!
Tanguay, was in fact the grease that helped turned the gears on the trio, enabling a previously dusfunctional due to fit nicely and gel. Tanguay's precise and deceptive slip passes and reading of unfoldong plays allowed Kovalev to become a dangerous trigger man rather than a puck carrier, and Koivu to become a more energy efficient busybody in the crease and corners.
Gainey looked brilliant in assembling the line, but now appears completely misguided in mangling with it.
The theory behind his thinking had speckles of merit. As Bruins skyscraper defenseman Zdeno Chara had cast his tall shadow all over Kovalev, often nullifying his effectiveness, Gainey's brainwave was to sic Laraque on him in order to free the sniper from the blanket coverage.
The move has succeeded in that goal, as Chara is constantly dealing with Laraque, only now there is no one of Tanguay's calibre and skill to feed Kovalev.
If it broken, don't fix it, it is often said, and Gainey's tinkering has played straight into Julien's hands by removing the Canadiens most dangerous weapon from the artilliary.
While Kovalev has found the net in scoring two of the three Canadiens goals in the series so far, none have come with the assistance of Laraque's minimal talents. Highlighting the ineffectiveness of the move, is that the Bruins have taken all of three minor penalties in two games, further playing into Julien's ploy and helping his plans.
Gainey, who truly has not been a full time coach since the early 1990's, is proving to be a neanderthal at the position. He is being outcoached so badly, it is sad to watch.
To be fair, these moves by Gainey alone, did not cost the Canadiens a chance to win Game 1 of the series. Untimely indiscipline took care of that. The Canadiens were involved in a one goal game until the middle third period, and coming into Game 2, there was substancial reason for hope on Montreal's side if they could only manage to keep cool heads and further use speed to their advantage.
The trouble was, Gainey outsmarted himself once more.
The Bruins are a team of well rounded depth, and four solid lines are needed to beat them even when they are off their game. The Canadiens held an edge in play for good spells in Game 1, but it can be gathered that the effort was unsatisfactory for Gainey. He then chose to remove ineffective parts and turned to variables hoping to turn the tide. The result was a mess.
Second line center Tomas Plekanec, the weakest Hab in Game 1, has been suffering through an extended drought for over a month. His morass has gone from being simply unproductive to being sometimes uncharacteristically unreliable defensively. Plekanec is a young veteran on the club, prone to funks as well as good stretches. Gainey stated no sooner than yesterday that the Canadiens could hardly part with his attributes.
A day later, Gainey has decided to slot moribund forward Sergei Kostitsyn into Plekanec's role at center, a position he has rarely played or been effective at in brief single game trials in his two short NHL seasons. To top off the apparent braincramp, Kostitsyn has not played a game in weeks, for reasons unclear to all concerned.
A skilled and combative player, the younger Kostitsyn packages unbriddled willingness to do more than he is able, but brings vision and guts to a game in way Plekanec hasn't of late. The experience factor tradeoff, leaves canyon sized holes. Sergei, for all he is, is prone to taking bad penalty calls at all times of the time game. It has largely been his undoing this season.
Inserting him into the lineup had to bring a smile to Claude Julien face.
In addition to that substitution, Gainey compromised the club's weakest spot - the defense already misses Andrei Markov abundantly - by inserting the miracously recovered Francis Bouillon into the game. Bouillon, small but rock solid, has missed the previous 24 games. It was thought that he should not have been ready to go for another ten days at least.
With that, out comes Patrice Brisebois from the lineup - the Canadien with the most playoff experience. Brisebois had played maybe three suspect shifts in an otherwise solid Game 1, but Bouillon suddenly was judged to be an upgrade.
Has it already been mentioned that if something isn't broken....
Brisebois, the elder statesman on the Habs, is something of a roulette proposition at times. He can go from confident to a minefield step in a stride. Removing him for Bouillon is a judgement call of risk versus risk. With a confident club thinking it has a logical chance to build on a good Game 1 effort, why would Gainey take the gamble?
Julien's smile here, dares to become a grin.
Removing Brisebois comes with a bit of a trickledown effect, as it takes away a powerplay pointman for when that situation arises for Montreal. In order to compensate for that possible but rare eventuality, Gainey inserts rookie Yannick Weber, who has all of five NHL games under his belt.
Weber will one day be a very good PP specialist in the NHL, but his time isn't now, especially inside the realm of a heated playoff battle. To make room for Weber as a seventh D man in the lineup, Gainey decides to sit rookie forward Matt D' Agostini, a shooter capable of making a difference in a tight game.
D' Agostini scored two goals in the Canadiens 5-4 overtime loss to Boston one week ago, helping in no small part to earn that precious point that explains why Montreal are in the post season in the first place.
Weber, hardly a forward, will take his place alongside Sergei Kostitsyn, hardly a centerman, and his brother Andrei, who has been in a sealed off ozone of late, and together they will form the Canadiens fourth line.
With that news, Claude Julien must just have been laughing. In final preparations for Game 2, he most surely told his troops to "stick to the game plan, play hard, and all your efforts and sacrificies will see you through."
Game 2 begins, and the Canadiens surprisingly gain the initial edge in play as the period begins. Nearing the eight minute mark, Montreal has an 8-2 lead in shots, and have come close on a few scoring chances their efforts have created. By all looks, they are taking it to Boston when Gainey's adjustments begin to unravel.
First, Bouillon reinjures himself, and heads to the dressing room. He'll make a brief courageous reappearance, but after playing less than two minutes, he's good and gone in this one. The inexperienced Weber is now looking at playing the entire game on defense against a rough and tumble Bruins team, which wasn't neccessarily in Gainey's plans.
Next, Sergei Kostitsyn is true to his reputation, and earns a neutral zone penalty for a subtle hook on a Bruins forward skating by. It's a call that come playoff time, could easily have been overlooked, but is somewhat enhanced by the Bruins player who stops skating entirely.
With Kostitsyn off, the Bruins pounce, and go up 1-0.
In Game 1, Plakenec took a pair of calls that lent themselves to laziness. So far, Kostitsyn is par for the course for the player he is replacing.
Minutes later, Habs forward Chris Higgins is nabbed for a high stick that never goes beyond his own shoulder in bopping a Bruins player on the chin. Again, enhancement can be called into question.
With Higgins off, the Bruins charge and make it 2-0, and the game is rapidly getting away from the Canadiens.
The Bruins, understandably, are poised to put this game away early.
A few shifts later, Tom Kostopoulos gets into Phil Kessel's face, and both players go off for roughing. Seconds into 4 on 4 play, Patrice Bergeron, in pursuit of the puck 30 feet away, rounds and nudges Canadiens defenseman Mathieu Schneider near the corner boards. Bergeron blatantly drops like a shot deer.
The call: Schneider for interference, when he obviously made an effort to get out of Bergeron's way, and the Bruins centerman goes along with him, tagged with the embarrassing but wholly earned diving call.
This is where it looked as though part of the Bruins learnings and teachings had been exposed to officials, who looked as though they had caught on to it.
Bruins coach Julien, is a bit of a sly master of the games within the game, and he's taught his team well. Playoff penalties are often hard to earn, but this was the third call going the Bruins way in the period, and all three were earned away from the play and on the farthest fringe of scoring chances. There is no better word for them than "inconsequensial". Nevertheless, nothing results from the 4 on 4 play, and Boston head to the dressing room up 2-0.
Beginning the second period, the Canadiens cued comeback takes only seconds to follow he fresh script of recent games. Alex Kovalev pounces on a loose puck seconds into period two, and makes the score 2-1.
That would be as close as the Canadiens would get in this game.
Four minutes later, Bruins defenseman Shane Hnidey makes it 3-1, scoring on a pinch play, that sucked the remainder of the soul from half the Habitants lineup.
Three successive hooking calls to the Canadiens - two of which could be termed judgemental - took the Canadiens out of a period in which Boston added two more goals. It was akin to watching a funeral procession.
With the game over for all intents and purposes, and the score 5-1 in Boston's favor by the end of the second, all that was left to determine would be which Canadiens players would fold and give up, and which would show up and compete.
An uneventful third period, in which most Bruins and Canadiens players exercised controlled discipline in the circumstances, meant the game score stayed as it was.
From a Canadiens standpoint, the questions beg. Have the Bruins truly earned this 2-0 game lead, or are the Canadiens baffling bad moves basically handing it to them on a platter, giving this series away.
A guess is, the Bruins are playing tough but disciplined hockey, while allowing the Canadiens fragility and habit of panicking to shoot themselves in the foot. Certain moves by Gainey, and without the use of hindsight, have been a recipe for disaster. He is failing in trying to outsmart a more experienced coach in Julien.
There's little doubt that Boston have hammed it up in earning some dubious penalty calls in at the right time and in the places, but all is fair in war and playoff hockey. Shame on the Canadiens better battlers for not doing the same when opportunities presented themselves.
None of the above mentioned finer points removes any credit from the Bruins, who simply did what they needed to do in order to win. That it might have been enabled by factions beyond their control is something that may just turn the Canadiens way, once they are on home ice, although few things point to it.
In a 5-1 loss that could have been a whole lot worse, it would be pointless to aim fingers at players whose performances were compromised by decisions made before the game.
This one might have been out of the player's hands from the get go.
Now was this game truly a masterpiece for Julien under these circumstances?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Julien could have done almost nothing to counter Gainey's changes and not go wrong.
Monday night, Game 3, will be the Canadiens last chance to pronounce themselvs. They may break out of the gate as they did the past two games and gain the lead - and it is not beyond probability that they could - hold that lead, and win a game, making a series out of a bad joke so far.
Given the coaching staff's propensity for outsmarting themselves so far in this series, don't hold your breath.