That is precisely what Frank Vatrano is walking into on Saturday night.
But for the 21-year-old native of East Longmeadow, Mass., this rivalry game isn’t just any rivalry game. It’s a rivalry he grew up watching, and for the very first time, he will be participating in it as a member of the hometown club.
“It’s honestly a dream come true,” Vatrano said following Saturday’s morning skate in Montreal. “I don’t think anything has really settled down yet — it’s such a surreal feeling still.
“The Bruins-Canadiens rivalry is something I’ve been watching since I’ve been growing up, so hopefully I can be a part of it.”
Vatrano’s first NHL recall came on Friday, when he was swapped for forward Alex Khokhlachev. At Saturday’s skate, he skated with Loui Eriksson and David Krejci, a player he has been watching from afar for quite a while.
“I think once I started to become a teenager, I really started paying attention to [certain] aspects of hockey and watching guys like Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand — all those guys who have been here for a long time,” Vatrano said. “I definitely try to model my game after them because they do everything so good on the ice.”
So, too, does Vatrano.
During rookie camp and training camp, he proved to be one of Boston’s most promising prospects. He kept right on impressing through the first 10 games of his AHL career, where he notched 10 goals and two assists for 12 points with Providence.
“Obviously, he’s had a good start in the American League,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien. “We know he shoots the puck well, he’s a straight-line forward, so he’s got an opportunity here with the great start that he’s had in Providence to come in here and see if he can help us.”
Vatrano was one of the later cuts during Boston’s training camp, and that gave Krejci an opportunity to get a good look at what his new linemate can do.
“He’s a good player,” Krejci said. “He’s really fast and he’s got a great shot, so give him the puck and see what he’s got.”
In Providence, Vatrano has abided by one sole mission: keeping it simple. Put the puck in the net. It’s what has gotten him this far, and it is what he is hoping will continue to propel him as he begins the next stage of his career.
“I think I’ve just been putting pucks on net and they’ve been going in for me,” he said. “Down [in Providence], I’ve just been trying to keep my game simple, and stick to what I know — putting pucks on net. Don’t try to overthink things.”
That will be especially important on Saturday night. The Bell Centre is not an easy place to play — not for seasoned veterans, and not for rookies. Emotions and intensity always run high, so keeping an even keel will be critical.
And Vatrano won’t be the only Massachusetts native making his Bruins-Habs debut on Saturday night. Canadiens rookie backup goalie Mike Condon — a Needham native who has shouldered the load of late in light of Carey Price’s lower-body injury — is in line to start against Boston for the first time in his young career.
“You can explain as much as you want before the game, but once the puck drops and the game starts, I think you’re going to feel the energy in the building and they’ll know what it’s all about,” said Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban. “Part of it is just experiencing it. You don’t want to say too much, but it’s one of the biggest rivalries in all of professional sports, so there won’t be a lack of motivation on either side tonight. I think everybody’s going to be pretty pumped up for the game, and for Condo, obviously, being from Boston, it’s going to be extra special for him.”
And yet, as inexplicable as the atmosphere may be when these two teams face off, some of Vatrano’s teammates still tried to give him a preview.
“Everyone’s just saying to me [that] it’s a real fun spot to play for your first game,” Vatrano said. “I’m really excited for that and can’t wait to see the crowd here tonight.”
Back on Oct. 10, the Bruins were still trying to find themselves. That night, they suffered a 4-2 loss to Montreal in their second game of the 2015-16 season.
Nearly a month later, they have started to find themselves. The new faces in the lineup have begun to blend in. There has been a renewed commitment to the system, and it has paid off, particularly on the road, where the Bruins have gone an impressive 5-1-0.
“We started really slow, but we’ve picked it up,” Krejci said. “Lately, we’ve found our game. We’re kind of getting more used to our game plan. But we’ll see what happens tonight. It’s always tough games to play in this building. So we’ll see.”
Two nights ago, the Bruins suffered their first road loss of the season, falling 4-1 to the Capitals in D.C. In that game, the Bruins were anything but disciplined. They landed in the box five times, and it cost them.
Needless to say, the Bruins cannot let that happen on Saturday night at the Bell Centre.
“We’ve been starting games well; we’ve just got to find a way to do it for 60 minutes and continue to stay out of the box,” said forward Jimmy Hayes. “We’re scoring some power play goals, and we’ve just got to stick to our structure and stay within that system that we have and believe in it, and that will get the result we want.”
The Bruins’ penalty kill ranks worst in the league, while the Canadiens’ power play is third in the NHL. Staying out of the box on Saturday, therefore, isn’t just important; it’s critical.
“They have really good power play, especially with their back end — they can shoot the puck really well,” Krejci said. “So we have to stay disciplined, stay out of the box.”
Boston may struggle on the PK, but the Canadiens aren’t taking anything for granted.
“Chara’s very hard to play against when he’s killing penalties with a long stick, and they have guys who are definitely willing to step in front of pucks,” said Montreal captain Max Pacioretty. “Stats obviously are there for a reason, but they’re still a tough team to score on when we’re on the power play.”
The Bruins are still a work-in-progress. They still find themselves searching for the consistency it will take to make sure they can run with the top teams in the league.
“We’ve improved, and then there’s been games where we’re still in the process of trying to, I guess, be a little bit more consistent as a team,” Julien said. “We’ve seen a lot of good things, but there’s still some work to be done here in our game and in our consistency from start to finish. But other than that, I think we’re trending in the right direction.”
The 2015-16 Bruins look a bit different from those in years past, and not only because of the players on the ice.
On the scoresheet, the Bruins have been explosive up front — a bit of a departure for a team that has generally revolved around a defense-first mentality. Early on in the season, the defense seemed to suffer as the offense surged; over the last six or seven games, however, the Bruins have stabilized a bit at both ends of the ice.
Currently, Boston’s 3.59 goals per game are second to only one team in the league: Montreal. Normally, when these two teams face off, the story is the goaltending. That isn’t necessarily the case on Saturday.
“I think maybe we’ll see a faster-paced game than we have in the past because I think they’re trying to create some more offense and they’re trying to use their speed up front,” Pacioretty said. “It’s a different style than we’ve seen in Boston in a while, and that’s why maybe it’s taken them a little bit to get going, but now they’ve really found their groove, and they’re playing with confidence.”
In the eyes of Subban, though, the Habs may as well ignore Boston’s slow start to the 2015-16 season. At this point, it is irrelevant.
“There’s going to be ups and downs throughout the season, so I think every night, you can’t really look at the stats,” Subban said. “Once the puck drops, you’ve just got to play. Every game’s different, and you just don’t know what you’re going to get. From the teams that are at the bottom of the conference to the teams at the top, anybody can beat anybody, and that’s the way the league’s structured now.
“So if you’re looking at numbers after the puck drops, it’s not going to benefit yourself or your team. You’ve just got to kind of play the game and see what happens.”
Projected Lineup Saturday vs. Montreal
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Brett Connolly
Loui Eriksson — David Krejci — Frank Vatrano
Matt Beleskey — Ryan Spooner — Jimmy Hayes
Max Talbot — Joonas Kemppainen — Tyler Randell
Zdeno Chara — Colin Miller
Torey Krug — Adam McQuaid
Joe Morrow — Kevan Miller
Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Jonas Gustavsson
Projected Scratches: Zac Rinaldo, Zach Trotman