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Canadiens, Bruins to become even more familiar foes

Old rivals will face each other in Montreal, play three times in eight days

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- One of the beautiful things about hockey is that two teams moving in opposite directions can find themselves on a collision course.

Such is the case with the struggling Montreal Canadiens and the soaring Boston Bruins, who will face each other at Bell Centre on Saturday (7 p.m ET; NHLN, CBC, SN, TVA Sports, NESN, NHL.TV).

Better still is that this storied rivalry, one so bitter that it's delicious, will crackle from ember to inferno in the coming week, with the Canadiens and Bruins playing each other three times in eight days.

Indeed, it's almost like an abbreviated Stanley Cup Playoff series during the regular season, opening in Montreal, resuming in Boston on Wednesday, then coming back to Montreal three days later. All that's missing is travel between the cities by train, as was the case in the 1920s through the early 1970s, scraps sometimes breaking out in the dining car that bridged the teams' rail coaches.

"I grew up watching it," Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, 32, said after practice Friday at Bell Centre. "I was a [Quebec] Nordiques fan, but whether it was Montreal against Quebec or Montreal against Boston, the Bruins were always tough games. I think it's the whole atmosphere, whether at the Bell Centre or at the Garden. It's always very special. The fans are into it and for us as players we know what's at stake. It means a lot to us."

The Bruins are coming off a five-day break having gone 8-0-2 in their past 10 games. The Canadiens, who also are ending a five-day break, are 4-6-0 in their past 10. 

"In my lifetime, and I'm 47, it's by far the biggest rivalry that I've experienced," said Montreal owner Geoff Molson, whose family has owned the Canadiens on and off since the late 1950s. "The second one, although it's been many years, would be the Nordiques. But for me it's the Bruins, just because we've played then so many times in my experience as a hockey fan and an owner."

So many times. In their NHL history, the Canadiens have played 152 playoff series, with 34 -- the most against any opponent -- coming against the Bruins since 1929, five years after Boston joined the League. (The Chicago Blackhawks are second on the playoff opponents list with 17 series.) The Canadiens have dominated, winning 25 series. 

The Bruins, meanwhile, have played 121 series, their 14 against the Toronto Maple Leafs 20 shy of their high against Montreal.

"A lot of it dates back to the years before I was born," Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher, 25, said after practice Friday in suburban Brossard. "Both franchises have been around for so long … historic matches, Stanley Cup games, the number of [Cup] championships that they've won (24 by Montreal, six by Boston). 

"The fans carry a lot of memories with them and anytime you get into a building where the fans have memories of watching the two teams play, it makes for a fun atmosphere. As players, you can feel that. We know what the Montreal-Boston rivalry means to a lot of people."

Off the top of his head, Molson rattled off a series of plays, some famous, some a little obscure, that have changed the tone and complexion of games and entire series against the Bruins. A highlight:

"I remember when Jose Theodore stole the series when he saved a shot with the knob of his stick," he said of the Montreal goalie's impossible, sprawling save on Boston's Bill Guerin midway through the third period of Game 6 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Montreal leading 2-1. "I still have that picture in my head. If that goes in, what happens?"

Video: 2002 Round 1, Gm6: Jose Theodore makes knob save

The Canadiens hung on to win 2-1 and eliminate the Bruins that night before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in six games in the conference semifinals.

Molson wasn't yet signing the players' paychecks; he was seven years from ownership. On his watch, the Canadiens have defeated the Bruins once in the playoffs, in a seven-game second-round series in 2014, and lost in seven games in the conference quarterfinals in 2011.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster," Molson said of facing Boston in any game, but especially in the playoffs. "I'm sure Bruins fans have their own memories."

Just not as many good ones.

"Our biggest rival is and has been the Canadiens," said Bruins chief executive officer Charlie Jacobs, whose father, Jeremy, has owned the team since 1975. "My dad will tell you of years where he thought we had a legit shot of having a Stanley Cup Final team only to get defeated by the Habs. That rivalry has gone on since long before he purchased the team, but it certainly has intensified in the years he has had [the team]. 

"Talk to any senior executive or anyone who has enough tenure, whether it be the Bruins or Habs, and they'll tell you, and I don't think I'm speaking out of turn here, that they're our biggest rival. There is nobody we more enjoy playing -- the theater of it -- and of course, the victory is that much sweeter if obtained."

Saturday will mark the 739th regular-season game between the Canadiens and Bruins, Montreal leading comfortably 360-267-8 with 103 ties. They have played each other in the Stanley Cup Final seven times (1930, 1946, 1953, 1957, 1958, 1977, 1978), Montreal winning every one.

During the Canadiens' ridiculous run of 18 consecutive playoff series wins against the Bruins from 1946-87, Boston general manager Harry Sinden said that there were three things certain in life: death, taxes and Montreal being given the first power play.

The rivalry has ebbed and flowed through the decades, the dominance of one yielding to the other. In the teams' 11 playoff series against each other since 1989, the Bruins have gone 6-5; Boston also has won six of the past 11 regular-season games against Montreal.

Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara has played 90 of his 1,390 NHL regular-season games against the Canadiens. He fully expects to have his chief Montreal nemesis, Gallagher, in his sternum for much of this eight-day stretch.

"This rivalry started a long time ago with Original Six teams," the Boston captain said. "With the compete level for the Stanley Cup, the emotions rise and that's where everything probably starts. It's one of those things that many teams have: the drive to win. Both teams want to win at all costs and that's what creates the great games and competition for both teams."

There isn't a player on the Bruins or Canadiens who expects anything less in the emotionally charged days to come.

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