The one clear benefit of the play-in round for this summer’s Stanley Cup playoff conclusion to the 2019-20 campaign is it gives new life to hockey clubs otherwise out of it with a month to go in the regular season.
The biggest beneficiary of that new postseason life is undoubtedly the Montreal Canadiens, who had the lowest point total (71) of any of the 24 teams that will qualify for the play-in round. The Habs were a bad team playing out the string that’s now been thrown a life preserver due to the unforeseen circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Montreal is scheduled to play the fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins once the postseason format begins and will face an uphill battle against a healthy, rested group that still features Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and is just a few seasons removed from back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. One would expect that Canadiens fans, media and anyone interested in the Bleu, Blanc and Rouge would be looking for reasons to justify their newfangled postseason presence.
But TSN 690 radio host Tony Marinaro wasn’t having any of that sunshine Habs talk during a recent NBC Sports Boston Zoom call with myself and Boston Sports Now’s James Murphy when asked about Montreal’s new life.
“The station I work for TSN 690 is the official partner of the Montreal Canadiens. We air Montreal Canadiens on our radio station. This is great for the Montreal Canadiens. It’s great for the fans. It’s great for the radio station that I work for. It’s great for me and it’s great for my show,” said an animated Marinaro. “Now, personally how do I feel about it? I think it’s stupid. [This is] a team that lost eight in a row at one point, and on another occasion lost another eight in a row. On another occasion lost five in a row.
“On another occasion lost three in a row and finished with 31 wins and 40 losses. [They] have a chance at a play-in to get into the actual playoffs? I think it’s the stupidest thing that I’ve ever heard in my life. These are exceptional times that call for exceptional measures. There are a lot of things that I don’t agree with. I think I speak for all of us that we all want hockey back and that the National Hockey League would want to have as many markets involved, in the mix, as possible to try and generate as much interest as possible, and to try and generate as much of the lost revenue as possible. I’m at a point where I just want sports back. As I much as I think it’s stupid, I want sports back more than I think it’s stupid if that makes sense.”
It certainly should make sense to anybody and everybody that loves, and right now misses, the NHL.
The hapless Canadiens were 10 points out of a playoff spot when the NHL regular season went on pause, haven’t made the postseason in back-to-back years, and will have not won a playoff series in five years when they eventually suit up against the Penguins this summer. Despite all of this, they might have a fighting chance with a rested, healthy Carey Price in a short series against a Penguins group coming off a long break.
A win by the Habs in the play-in could even eventually set up a playoff series between the Bruins and the Canadiens. Selfishly, who wouldn’t want to see Claude Julien and his Canadiens match up with the Black and Gold in a playoff series that could help rekindle a rivalry that’s been on life support over the last few seasons?
All that being said, it’s going to be tough to feel like low-seeded play-in teams like the Canadiens actually deserve a regular Stanley Cup playoff berth given so many critical voices viewing skepticism at the 24-team postseason format set up by the NHL.
After covering almost 20 years’ worth of NHL games with the Bruins and hundreds of Stanley Cup Playoff games, the Game 7 between the Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2011 Eastern Conference Final goes down as the single best game I’ve ever covered.
The 1-0 win for the Black and Gold that vaulted them to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final was played this week nine years ago -- May 27, 2011 -- at TD Garden with everything on the line for a Bruins core group at the height of its powers.
It was a perfectly-executed game between the Bruins and Lightning fine-tuned by a pair of long postseason runs. There wasn’t a single penalty called in the entire game by the referring crew of Dan O’Halloran and Stephen Walkom and just a miniscule 57 whistle stoppages. Both teams were locked into playing mistake-free hockey and did just that for the first two and a half periods of the do-or-die game with everything on the line.
“I have nothing really intelligent to say right now,” said legendary NBC play-by-play man Doc Emrick on the telecast at the beginning of the third period, “other than to say, ‘It’s been terrific.’ ”
The Bruins had the better of the chances with Tampa Bay goaltender Dwayne Roloson forced to make 37 saves, while Tim Thomas had to stop just 24 shutouts in the eventual shutout performance.
The Bruins had the better of the chances whether it was a Milan Lucic breakaway in the first period, or the 22 shots on net peppered by the top two forward lines of Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton and Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Mark Recchi throughout the game.
But it was all about the entire Bruins team with top shutdown pair Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg both topping 26 minutes of ice time for the game and the B’s defense holding both Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos to just single shots on net.
It was the mild-mannered, powerful Seidenberg who drilled St. Louis with a big open ice hit in the first two minutes of the game and summarily made the announcement to the finesse Lightning bunch that that they were in for a tough night.
For the Bruins it was about cracking the 1-3-1 trap employed by Lightning head coach Guy Boucher, and that opening finally presented itself midway through the third period. It took the perfectly-executed play to break their system and win the game, and that’s exactly what the Bruins pulled off.
Andrew Ference carried the puck out of the defensive zone before hitting Krejci in a perfect spot in the neutral zone between two defenders. Krejci skated it quickly into the offensive zone and created a 2-on-1 with Horton moving without the puck to the net, and it was a perfect, slick dish from the playmaking center to Game 7 hero Horton that produced the game-winner.
Horton scored the Game 7 game-winner against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round as well, and those two goals cemented his massive status in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final run before a dirty Aaron Rome hit in the Stanley Cup Final took him out of that series.
The game was finished off by Seidenberg blocking his eighth shot of the game in a warrior performance from the German defenseman, and featured Stamkos playing with his nose all stitched up and repaired after taking a heavy, deflected Johnny Boychuk slap shot right to his face.
The game had toughness, playmaking and the ultimate compete level with none of the nonsense that can sometimes mar postseason affairs.
There certainly have been Bruins playoff games with more nastiness and times when it took an amazing, iconic play to win a clinching game in a series. But from beginning-to-end there has never been anything quite as tense and well-played as a 0-0 game through the first 50 plus minutes of the game where it became clear that the first hockey team to crack was going to lose the game.
It took a perfectly designed and executed play from the Black and Gold to put the finishing move on the Lightning, and that was only appropriate given the tenor of the game. Anybody who was at TD Garden on May 27, 2011, remembers the exact emotion in the aftermath as they left the building saying to themselves, “Damn, that was a good hockey game."