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Posted: Thursday April 16, 2009 11:58PM; Updated: Friday April 17, 2009 4:45PM
Michael Farber Michael Farber >
INSIDE THE NHL

Can't push over these Canadiens

Story Highlights

Montreal got a moral victory in giving physical Boston all it could handle

Georges Laraque gave Boston plenty of matchup problems during the game

The Canadiens will try to even their series Saturday night in Boston

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Georges Laraque was part of Montreal's plan to play a more physical brand of hockey.
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(BOSTON) -- Phil Kessel became a civilian for the second game of the Boston-Bruins-Montreal Canadiens first round series a year ago, the result of a faint-hearted effort in the opener. He watched the match from the press box in Montreal in a spiffy charcoal gray suit, but he will certainly be donning his familiar black and gold on Saturday after scoring a pair of open net goals and assisting on Zdeno Chara's power play winner in Boston's 4-2 (BOX | RECAP) victory Thursday night in Game 1.

"I was giving him a bad time because he got named a star," Boston defenseman Aaron Ward said. "If all you have to do is score into an empty net, then that's kinda easy." Kessel's last goal did come with Montreal goalie Carey Price on the bench in favor of an extra attacker, but there are no quibbles for the favored Bruins, who emerged chastened from the Game 1 win.

In the Department of Moral Victories, Montreal announced it planned to stick around a while with a welcome if not characteristic display of in-your-grill hockey. Rather than play the piñata to the Bruins, the Canadiens pushed back. Hard. Indeed they were the more physical team, on the stat sheet -- 31 hits to 23 -- if not always on the seismic scale. The Canadiens-as-toughs go against type, like Tina Fey playing the romantic lead or the Washington Nationals winning the pennant.

At times in recent years the Canadiens have played so small, they would have been lucky they could get on the rides at Disneyland. To address this obvious deficiency, to give his team an cowardly lion-like injection of courage, general manager Bob Gainey lavished a three-year, $4.5 million contract on a sui generis heavyweight named Georges Laraque, who had bounced among teams in recent years not because he had lost his notorious pugilistic skill but because he entertained this almost quaint Victorian notion that he should be picking on guys his own size. Laraque is 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds. There aren't all that many guys his own size. He had not played much during the regular season -- 33 games, often because of a wonky back -- and certainly not much when he was in the lineup. His average per-game stay on the ice had been about 7:30; he never had played more than 11:36 in any match.

In the biggest surprise of Game 1, a match in which the probability of a Laraque fight was remote, the big galoot played 13:12 as a winger in place of Alex Tanguay on the No. 1 line with Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev. While the line didn't precisely dazzle -- Kovalev's wicked shot over Tim Thomas' shoulder from the right faceoff circle in the second period came just after an expired power play -- the trio did announce Montreal would not be pushed around. (Tanguay took some shifts with the line late in the second and third periods, to no noticeable effect.) Laraque proved a load to handle near the Bruins net, albeit he was not terribly effective offensively.

"He deserves credit," Ward said. "He's a hard guy to move."

Gainey's gambit made sense, certainly in the long term. Rather than taking his chances with the Koivu-Kovalev-Tanguay line, which has been effective since the GM/interim coach created it late in the season, he would try to steal a win while announcing the Canadiens welcomed the rough stuff. Until Mr. 105.4 Miles Per Hour blasted a 45-footer past Price when neither Tom Kostopoulos nor Maxim Lapierre covered the point, Gainey almost made it work. In the playoffs, a little roiling of the waters might prove to be a good thing.

Laraque certainly was going to make himself audible in this series, if not always visible. The Canadiens enforcer has a voice that rumbles from his shoe tops, a basso profundo that adds a certain veneer of gravitas to whatever happens to come out of his mouth. There have been 31 previous series between these ancient rivals, including some of the most celebrated playoff matches since the days when Lord Stanley's Cup was hardly bigger than a spittoon. But by exercising his rights of free speech on a Montreal radio station on Wednesday, he had essentially turned the seemingly annual iteration into a personal platform. For a player who passed the entire regular season without actually scoring a goal -- although in fairness, at Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges noted, that is not Laraque's primary worry -- it is a neat trick.

Laraque, in French, told station CKAC that some Bruins had said their tough guy, Shawn Thornton, who had fought him early in the season, "trembled" at the thought of having to fight Laraque. "He is not in my league," declared Laraque, who is unofficially a few inches taller and officially 26 pounds heavier than Thornton although the Bruins fourth-liner did lead the tale of their personal tape with six goals and some 2½ more minutes of ice time per game. (Thornton played 7:28 in Game 1.) Laraque also said he would be willing to fight Chara and Milan Lucic, the second-year Bruins forward who bedeviled defenseman Mike Komisarek during the playoffs last year, which prompted Gainey to sign Laraque in the first place. While neither Chara nor Lucic would presumably want to cool their heels for five minutes because they had engaged a rock 'em sock 'em robot like Laraque, the Canadiens tough guy certainly did his best to goad them before and during Game 1.

Placed in the context of the historic rivalry, the Laraque taunts -- as intemperate as they might have been from someone whose role remains relatively modest -- rate down the list. There is something said every spring, including the shouting match last year between Bruins coach Claude Julien and former Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau. Of course, the most clever bit of stick-and-stones was actually the handiwork of a Boston fan during the 1988 series as the Bruins were ending a streak of 18 consecutive series losses to the hated bleu, blanc, rouge. From the upper balcony in the end arena, a fan hung a banner that was written in Greek. A man in the crowd helpfully provided the translation to a baffled writer. The banner, he said, read, "Eat s..., Chelios," a reference to the then-Montreal defenseman who indeed understood the language of his ancestry.

Apparently this is why Boston is called the Athens of America.

 
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