BOSTON – The lack of energy, emotion and urgency from the Montreal Canadiens in their coach’s return to Boston on Wednesday night revealed some things about that group of players. It also once again confirmed the particular brand of nowhere that Claude Julien’s Habs are destined for this season.
On the other side, it was also mighty telling which Bruins players stepped up and made a major impact in the 4-1 victory over Julien and his hated Habs at TD Garden.
Almost to a man, it was the Bruins who faced the most criticism and scrutiny under Julien in Boston, who rose up and did the most damage against the Habs on a night their coach hoped for a triumphant return. Perhaps nobody in a Bruins uniform had a rockier road with Julien than Ryan Spooner, the speedy, skilled center who was never tough enough, aggressive enough or good enough at the little things to satisfy his demanding, old-school coach.
Some of that was clearly on Spooner as he developed his game in fits and starts in the NHL, but some of that was absolutely on a coach who never truly connected with the player, or gave him the room to grow and develop his confidence. There were many instances where Julien simply decided a player couldn’t help his team, and that would be that. In many instances, the former Bruins coach was spot-on in his determination, but there were many examples of speed, skill players such as Spooner where he was blind to their potential.
It’s been a different story under Bruce Cassidy, who has brought out the best in Spooner this season as evidenced by his game-winning goal against Julien and the Habs Wednesday. The goal gives the red-hot Spooner three in his past four games and has him on a pace for a career-best 16 goals and 40 points this season while also importantly turning into a plus player on the ice.
Spooner carried the puck straight through the guts of the Montreal defense toward the net and attempted to make a centering pass toward Matt Grzelcyk at the far post. Instead, the puck bounced off Jonathan Drouin’s skate and into the net to give the Bruins a 2-1 lead in the second period.
Boston scored two more goals in the one-sided game, but it was Spooner’s goal that stood as the game-winner in Claude’s not-so-triumphant return. After the game, Spooner was asked whether it felt good to score against a coach that had doled out so much tough love to him in the past.
“It was just another game for me, I just want to help out,” said Spooner, who was clearly playing it down given some of his critical words for Julien in the past. “It was nice to score though...Yeah, for sure. I just think that we have a good mix here.
“We have some guys who are young that stepped up for us and that’s huge. I mean, to be one of the top teams in the league you have to have some guys that are 18, 19, 20 [years old] that are going to step up and we’ve had that so that’s been good for us.”
Clearly, Spooner had a little something extra in this one from the drop of the puck, though. The speedy winger led the Bruins with four shots on net and threw a whopping four registered hits perhaps in an effort to show Julien some of the hardness that he’s developed in his game. This has been a consistent trend in Spooner’s game this season, though, as he’s put up 22 registered hits in 23 games played this season, which actually gives him more than Brad Marchand (17) while No. 63 has even played in 12 more games than the Spoon Man.
Spooner wasn’t alone, however, in shining on Wednesday night in Rendezvous De Claude.
David Pastrnak was another young player that had his ups and downs with Julien in his first three seasons. He found himself on the bench on more than one occasion when puck management or defense became an issue. Pastrnak scored the Bruins first goal after doggedly chasing the puck and turning it over from Jeff Petry behind the Montreal net. He finished with six shot attempts, a goal and a plus-1 rating in 14:57 of ice time.
David Krejci certainly had his moments of frustration as a creative offensive player dealing with Julien in their long time working together, and once again he stepped up as well vs. the Habs. Krejci finished with a goal and two points along with a team-best plus-2. He also absolutely dominated in the face-off circle with a 16-for-20 performance and crushed young players Drouin and Jacob De La Rose.
Judging by his recent, pretty disconnected comments about seeing Julien behind the Montreal bench, it’s fair to say that Tuukka Rask was another Bruin not overly worked up about last season’s coaching change. Rask wasn’t exactly facing wall-to-wall challenges from a pop-gun Montreal offense that only managed to scratch out 22 shots on net, but he stopped 21 of them while standing tall as Boston killed a 5-on-3 power play in the second period.
Rask improved to 13-0-2 in his past 15 decisions dating to Nov. 29 and has surpassed Andrei Vasilevskiy (13-0-1 from Oct. 9 – Nov. 16) for the longest such run by a goaltender this season. So, Wednesday night’s showing in Julien’s return was yet another example of a Bruins player who appeared happy to make sure the coach’s much-hyped return was cloaked in defeat.
Just don’t expect any of them to publicly gloat about it, or hint that there might have been some motivation with Julien on the other side.
“Gain as many points as you can. They’re all important games, especially divisional matchups,” said Rask. “You try to get points like we have. Still a lot of games left, so trying to keep our game the way it’s going. Our effort and battle have always been there. Execution sometimes is not there, but I think that’s what it all comes down to. Just effort, battle level and how well your head is in the game…a lot of it is just being a smart hockey player.
“You know, you understand what you do right and what you do wrong and then you correct the mistakes. Then you go out there and execute them. I mean it’s pretty simple to say it, but I think the guys we have here are really smart hockey players. They understand.”
The “effort” and “battle level” Rask was referring to is something that was lamented as missing many, many times in Julien’s final couple of years in Boston. It clearly went AWOL for the Habs on Wednesday night in a game that should have been emotional and urgent.
It was telling so many of Julien’s former critical targets left with a victory and their former coach shuffled out of the Garden lamenting in two languages that his Montreal team “laid an egg” in Boston. While Julien might have deserved better given his long body of work, it’s clear his former Bruins players earned the better result as they received a little measure of revenge in the place it matters most, the scoreboard.