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Bruins face rival Canadiens with questions to answer

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- It is a regular-season game in mid-November.

But for the Boston Bruins, their visit to Bell Centre to face the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN360) should mean much more.

It is not just one of 82 regular-season games.

It is a test.

The Bruins have been one of the NHL's model franchises for years, and when they stumbled out of the gates this season there were whispers their long reign as the Eastern Conference's best team was coming to an end.

Then the Bruins lost captain Zdeno Chara to a knee injury for 4-6 weeks on Oct. 23, and things were suddenly rather dire in Boston.

The response from the Bruins was to reel off six wins in seven games before being blown out 6-1 Wednesday at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In the long view, that lopsided result in Toronto might have been the best thing to happen to the Bruins entering their game against the Canadiens, because they could use any edge they can get in this longstanding rivalry.

Wanting to atone for an embarrassing performance would certainly qualify.

The Bruins often like to say they have trouble playing at Bell Centre, but the fact is they have trouble playing the Canadiens no matter where the game is held.

Since Feb. 6, 2013, when the Bruins won their fifth straight against the Canadiens, 2-0 at Bell Centre, Montreal has won seven of eight regular-season games against Boston, plus four of seven in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The lone regular-season loss in that stretch came at Bell Centre, and since that date the Canadiens have a 6-2-0 record in Boston and a 5-2-0 mark at home when the playoffs are included.

To put the Bruins' 1-5-2 regular season record against the Canadiens since Feb. 6, 2013, in perspective, Boston's record against the rest of the NHL during the same span is 84-34-12.

The Bruins and Canadiens always seem to meet in the playoffs in any case, but since the NHL switched to a divisional playoff format last season the chances of it happening on a regular basis have grown considerably.

So should the urgency for the Bruins to get past this mental hump they have against the Canadiens, because their chances of winning the Stanley Cup might hinge on it.

Some of Boston's most important players struggle mightily whenever they face Montreal, starting with goaltender Tuukka Rask.

Rask started the game in Toronto on Wednesday but was replaced by Niklas Svedberg after allowing four goals on 16 shots in a little more than 23 minutes, and coach Claude Julien decided not to start him Thursday in Montreal.
In his career, Rask is 3-11-3 against the Canadiens with a 2.80 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. Oddly, Rask has had more success against Montreal at Bell Centre than he has at home. His numbers on the road are 3-6-0 with a 2.33 GAA and .918 save percentage. But Rask has never beaten the Canadiens at home in the regular season, earning the first win of his career against Montreal at TD Garden during the playoffs last spring. Rask is 0-5-3 with a 3.35 GAA and .883 save percentage against the Canadiens on home ice.
So really, if Rask was going to beat the Canadiens, it would have been more likely to happen at Bell Centre. On the other hand, maybe the switch to Svedberg is what the Bruins need.

Center Patrice Bergeron has good career numbers against the Canadiens but does not perform well in Montreal, scoring 15 points in 28 career games in Montreal compared to 28 points in 24 games at home.

Same goes for Brad Marchand, who has never scored a regular-season goal in 11 games at Bell Centre, but has eight points in 10 games against the Canadiens at home.

The one player who has been consistent against Montreal is Milan Lucic. But that consistency has been offset by his behavior in this matchup.

Lucic has 21 points in 37 career games against the Canadiens, with 10 points coming in 17 games at home and 11 points in 20 games at Bell Centre; that production comes in just below his career points-per-game average. But in those 37 games, Lucic has 92 penalty minutes. At that pace, if Lucic played against the Canadiens 82 times, he would rack up nearly 204 penalty minutes, or 68 more than he has ever accumulated in any given season.

The Bruins arrive in Montreal hurting, missing Chara and top-line center David Krejci, but they should still see this as an opportunity.

Everyone is expecting the Bruins to lose their cool and lose to the Canadiens at Bell Centre because recent history has shown it to be a very consistent pattern, one Boston appears unable to break.

After their loss against the Maple Leafs, Lucic and his teammates spoke of how important it will be for them to remain disciplined and stick to their game plan against the Canadiens. It is something they have repeated constantly during the past 19 months, especially during last season's playoffs.

Thursday is an opportunity for the Bruins to actually do it, and not just say it. It would be in their best interests to take it.

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