MONTREAL -- There are still the rare nights -- and last night was one of them -- when the National Hockey League pulls on its diamond ring, spit shines its shoes, and waltzes us back to a time when so many of us fell in love with the sport, smitten by its speed and alternating flashes of skill and ferocity. End-to-end rushes. Big hits. Not a load of goals, or wave upon wave of scoring chances, but good, skate-churning, wind-sucking chances, and great work in net (most of that here by Andrew Raycroft). A building that not only rocks, but trembles, to the point where you wonder if the roof will fall in before the ice crazes.
The Bruins and Canadiens had at it again last night at the Bell Centre, the new-age big-box arena of the Habs, and the first period alone was downright intoxicating. Trailing in the series, 0-2, after losses on Causeway Street, the bleu-blanc-et-rouge came home to what felt like a hero's welcome.
When they took the ice, the place quaked, all those Cup banners shook with it, and troublesome fissures soon were all too evident in Boston's game.
"Even in the warmup, and during the anthems, you felt it," noted Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, who hadn't heard the place shake like that since the day he returned to the Montreal lineup following his battle with cancer. "We've said it many times -- the crowd can be a great advantage. They really helped us tonight."
Added Montreal blue liner Craig Rivet, "What a feeling to come out tonight, stand at the blue line, and have that happen. I'll tell you, it's like having another guy on the ice."
When the Habs left the ice for good, they had Boston's lead in the best-of-seven series pared by 50 percent, the Bruins' confidence shaken, and the loyalty of perhaps the greatest hockey city of 'em all hard at their backs.
The decibel level was exponentially higher than the Museum of Fine Arts-like reception that Boston fans sprinkled down upon the Bruins in Games 1 and 2 at the Vault. Hockey remains a passion, a large, undeniable piece of the culture up here. Down in the Hub of Hockey, for whatever reasons (No Cup since '72? A decade-plus of unpalatable postseasons?), the fans are more vocal on talk radio when blasting the team than when they're on Causeway Street allegedly rooting for it. Will the passion-challenged Bostonians ever dial it up again for hockey?
By the end of 20 minutes here, the Canadiens had a 2-1 lead, both goals scored by Alexei Kovalev, the re-born Russian, brought back to life when paired with Saku Koivu and Richard Zednik in Game 2. Adding even more zeal to an overzealous home crowd, Habs goaltender Jose Theodore was credited with the second assist on both Kovalev strikes. It was reminiscent of Quebec City's NHL days when a Stastny -- be it Peter, Anton, or Marian -- by writ of Provincial law had to be credited with an assist on every Nordiques goal. Some nights it didn't seem to matter if they were even dressed, never mind on the ice.
Theodore now holds a 2-1 point edge over Boston's No. 1 line of Joe Thornton, Mike Knuble, and Glen Murray. The trio left Boston with only a Knuble goal to show for the first two games. Dubbed the 700-Pound Line earlier this season by Montreal coach Claude Julien, they have spent the first three games as the Dead-Weight Line.
But it was clear that Thornton, the catalyst to most of the wingers' production, was hindered in the first two games by an unspecified back/rib injury. He moved much better here, his stride wider, faster, and stronger. He moved to pucks with improved jump, able to twist his trunk with a good degree of torque. No longer did he move up and down the ice like a top-heavy bookcase. But the captain still couldn't get his name on a goal.
As the night played out, the Bruins couldn't match the Habs for pressuring the puck on offense. That was in no small measure because of the loss of No. 2 pivot Michael Nylander, scratched because of "flu-like symptoms," according to coach Mike Sullivan. He may have caught that bug midway through the third period Friday when the slick Swede was clobbered to the ice by the Canadiens' Steve Begin. Rocked by the hit high in Boston's offensive zone, Nylander straightened up and left under his own power, but it was a stinging check -- the kind that chicken soup or antibiotics don't dent.
Begin left the building last night on crutches, apparently after taking an unpenalized knee-to-knee hit from Knuble. The Canadiens did not issue a medical report on their hard-hitting center.
Without Nylander working his Meadowlark Lemon magic between Sergei Samsonov and Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins weren't the same team. Not only was the No. 1 line sputtering, the No. 2 line was without its most critical piece. On a night when the Bell Centre faithful handed the Habs a home-ice advantage similar to what they enjoyed for decades at the Forum, the Bruins were out of it before the first puck dropped.
Boston rookie Andrew Raycroft, pelted with 25 shots over the first 40 minutes, was at his Calder-winning best midway through the second when he turned back three brilliant chances by the Habs -- Zednik on a forehander out of the right circle at 8:05, followed by a Michael Ryder sweep attempt from the left circle at 9:38, and then Ryder again off a Mike Ribeiro dish at 10:14.
Just over three minutes later, each side skating a man down, Raycroft couldn't prevent Andrei Markov from depositing a Zednik rebound. It was Canadiens, 3-1, and the frenzied Montreal fans were back to shaking down the thunder.
The hockey history book is full of evidence that Boston has been in far worse positions than a 2-1 series lead when facing the Canadiens. In fact, the chance remains they can wrap up the series Thursday night back in their building.
But to win it, the Bruins need Nylander back, pronto, and time is running out for the Dead Weight Line (now 1-0--1 for three games). Game 4 here tomorrow night won't decide the series. But from a practical standpoint? The numbers are as obvious as those Cup banners.