WILMINGTON - If we didn't have a series before - and it was looking doubtful as recently as Sunday afternoon - we have one now. The Bruins and Canadiens will meet again tonight, in Game 4 of their best-of-seven playoff round, and the math tells us the Habs have a 2-1 series lead.
Much like the math at the gas pump these days, the numbers look grossly inflationary.
Now, before everyone gets carried away, the Bruins don't have their archrivals on the run. They squeezed out a 2-1 win over Les Glorieux Sunday night, in overtime, first and foremost because goalie Tim Thomas got better as the game got longer, withstanding an overtime barrage during which the Habs hammered him with six shots.
The Canadiens also contributed mightily to their own downfall, getting messy in their end on the game's final sequence. To wit: Ex-Bruin Bryan Smolinski smacked Peter Schaefer with a slash that led to Thomas bolting the crease on a delayed penalty, Marc Savard jumping on the ice, and Schaefer combining on a pass play with Dennis Wideman that left the crafty Savard with enough open net to haul in a beluga whale.
Shot, score, and bid adieu to the mind-numbing streak of 10 wins the Canadiens accumulated against the Bruins this season, including a pair in Games 1 and 2 of this series.
Good goaltending. Timely scoring. Sound familiar? The Bruins chiseled their way back into the playoffs this season, after a four-year drought, wrapping those two elements around a sound, teamwide defensive game plan.
Can they keep doing it? Of course, because they've been playing that way since the start of October. Can they beat the top-seeded Habs? That's not as easy to predict, but yes, they can, in large part because of the blossoming talent of rookie behemoth Milan Lucic, who is now the club's No. 1 left winger and the single most compelling "watch" in the lineup.
"He's been their best player by a long shot," Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau noted after the Habs skated yesterday at the Garden. "He's played really well. I like the way he plays. He's physical, he's got good speed, he gets involved. Nothing dirty. I really enjoy watching him."
Lifelong Bruins fans might be somewhat skeptical of a Montreal coach heaping praise on a Boston player. That's not to say this Bruins-Canadiens relationship is built on mistrust. But it is to say that, around here, that CH logo fosters a certain, oh, je ne sais quoi . . . paralyzing fear?
But let's take Carbonneau at his word, or better yet, believe our own eyes. Lucic continued to unfold as a powerhouse in Game 3, his second time lining up with Savard (C) and Glen Murray (RW) on the club's No. 1 trio. He scored a goal, providing the Bruins with their first lead over Montreal since March 2007, and he crushed every Hab that came his way, including a pair of murderous hits on Mike Komisarek, the defenseman who just so happens to have finished second overall, leaguewide, in hits delivered this season.
Lucic, as of yesterday morning, led the playoffs with 18 hits, four more than the Rangers' Daniel Girardi and the Flames' Dion Phaneuf, a pair of defensemen. Only 19 years old, Lucic has become a presence, a force, cut in the same bold form as Hall of Famer Cam Neely. He has yet to demonstrate Neely's shot, or touch, or cruising speed, but he is slowly knitting those elements together, and with those two strikes to the 6-foot-4-inch, 242-pound Komisarek, you can bet Lucic now officially has the Habs concerned (polite here for: worried) every time he pops over the boards.
"We're both competitors and guys who like to compete," Komisarek said. "We're both hard-working guys. There are a lot of similarities in our game. At the same time, we're battling hard for our teams. We're not backing down from each other."
In 77 regular-season games, Lucic landed 181 hits, second on the Bruins to Zdeno Chara (223). Through the first three games of this series, he has more than doubled his hitting pace.
"He hasn't said anything to me," said Lucic, asked if coach Claude Julien encouraged him to ratchet up his physical play. "Really, the only thing he asked me was whether I was nervous."
And what did Cool Hand Lucic have to say?
"No reason to be nervous out there," he said. "Just go out and play hockey."
Nerves had the better of most of the Bruins in Game 1, and the jitters all but handed the Canadiens the 1-0 series lead. In Game 2, after falling behind by 2-0, they finally began to show some confidence, not only in their physical play but also their playmaking, their work in all three zones. With the Savard OT winner Sunday night, they dropped a shot of espresso into their cup of confidence.
Following his squad's easy Game 1 win, Carbonneau identified only one drawback - an inability to score on the power play. Not to worry, he said, because he knew what his Habs could do. They finished with the top power play in the league during the regular season.
"We'll get our chances," he said,
Three games gone by, he has proven to be right. The Canadiens have had 18 power-play opportunities, more than any of the other 15 playoff teams. However, his Habs also had only one power-play goal. Translated: The Bruins, with a 94.4 percent success rate, are the best penalty killers in the playoffs.
The soft spot in Boston's game, as it was all season, is goal scoring. In three games, the Bruins have scored but five times, while giving up eight. Of the 16 teams to make the postseason cut, only the Bruins were upside down when it came to putting the puck in the net (212 scored, 222 allowed).
But here they are, still clinging, still hoping, their spirits buoyed tremendously by their win Sunday night. There is no magic to the Bruins, no sorcery, no sleight of hand, no heaping savings of CHarisma to pull out of the Stanley Cup vault. They win with netminding, defense, and a little break here and there.
The only difference right now is Lucic, his game building, along with the confidence of everyone around him.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com