Game 7 pressure? Bruins are tested
WILMINGTON - Game 7 of this epic Boston-Montreal showdown is scheduled to kick off tonight at a sure-to-be-crackling Bell Centre.
The thing is, the Bruins have been taking on seventh games for the past month.
To finish two points ahead of ninth-place Carolina and qualify for the playoffs, the Bruins rattled off points in nine of 10 regular-season matches, the streak culminating in their clinching a postseason spot with a 2-1 win over Ottawa April 4.
Then when the Canadiens won three of the first four games in their first-round series, the Bruins had to stare down elimination for the last two matches, emerging with a pair of victories to force tonight's do-or-die contest.
The pressure couldn't be greater. Game 7. In Montreal, a city that is the steward of Stanley Cups. Within the walls of a building that will contain 21,273 rabid, towel-waving fans. A guaranteed handshake line at the end of the night.
For the Canadiens, tonight will be the first time they face a possible season-ender. The Bruins, however, have been fighting to extend their season for quite some time.
"Game 7s are almost like those games that we had [Saturday] night," said Andrew Ference, referring to the 5-4 win at TD Banknorth Garden. "It's pretty emotional. It's pretty wild. When you're down in a series, I guess, our last game was a Game 7 anyway. I don't think it's going to be different than the last couple games. [Saturday] night, we were basically on the verge of elimination. So it's really a very similar type of game."
Montreal swaggered into the series with all the confidence expected of a club that had claimed all eight meetings with the Bruins this season. Their chests ballooned even bigger when they took Games 1 and 2 at the Bell Centre, riding hotshot goalie Carey Price and the stick of world-class talent Alex Kovalev, who netted a seemingly back-snapping overtime goal to give Montreal a 2-0 series lead.
But four games later, Montreal looks like a broken team that's staggering at the wrong time. Price, who blanked the Bruins in Game 4 to make it a 3-1 series, has seen 10 pucks enter his net over the last two matches. Kovalev has vanished, smothered by the tight checking of Zdeno Chara (with help from partners Aaron Ward and Shane Hnidy). The once-potent Montreal power play, the best in the NHL during the regular season, has been successful only twice in 29 occasions, clicking at a measly 6.9 percent, the worst conversion rate of the playoff teams.
At this point, coach Guy Carbonneau is struggling to find some solutions.
"There were [nearly 10] minutes left when [defenseman] Francis Bouillon scored," Carbonneau said after Game 6. "Then we gave them three goals on breaks. They created those breaks and took advantage of them. We didn't react the right way. We have to regroup now. Obviously, everyone wishes they can close it in four games. But that's why you have that seventh game. That's why you play 82 games - to have a chance to play that seventh game at home."
Bruins coach Claude Julien knows there are still areas of concern. The flammable Kovalev could explode. The Bruins were "pathetic," in Julien's description, in the faceoff circle in Game 6, especially when they lost 13 of 16 first-period draws. They can't afford to let up on the Canadiens like they did in Saturday night's third period when winger Christopher Higgins negated Phil Kessel's second goal by tying the game 11 ticks after the 20-year-old netted his second strike of the night.
What doesn't worry Julien, however, is his team's mental approach. The Bruins have been punched in the face all season, starting from the injuries to Patrice Bergeron and Manny Fernandez to the 3-1 deficit. Through it all, they have rammed through every roadblock to put themselves in their current situation.
"The reason we are where we are is because of the adversity we've had this year," Julien said. "It was painful not only to miss a guy like Patrice Bergeron all year, but we lost Manny Fernandez all year. He's a great goaltender. We're lucky that both Tim [Thomas] and [Alex Auld] have played great.
"[Andrew] Alberts was out for a while, which is the reason right now it's hurt him a little bit. That kind of stuff allowed us to become a stronger team because everybody had to step up. I think we are where we are right now because of those situations. Despite all of the negative stuff that's happened to us, it's really thrown us a lot of positive things too."
The 20 times they've fallen behind by a 3-1 margin, the Bruins never have rallied to win the series. This group, however, has proven capable of disproving whatever fate history dictates.
"We've been playing our whole careers and dreaming about this," said Glen Metropolit. "It's going to be a great chance for us to really step up and prove to everyone that we're a great team. We're a resilient bunch of guys. Hopefully we can pull it off [tonight]."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at FShinzawa@globe.com.