Bruins, Habs renew rivalry

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

In the town where Cam Neely and Terry O'Reilly were worshipped as much for their stitches as their goals, consistently hitting an opponent is just as important as consistently hitting the scoresheet in the eyes of hockey's best-known blue-collar fans.

And when it comes to smearing the enemy's face into the glass, nothing elicits a bigger cheer at Boston's TD Banknorth Garden than the sight of a Montreal Canadien being crushed.

The source of all this bitterness toward the Habs stems from the constant post-season beatings the Canadiens have inflicted on the Bruins over the decades.

In 31 previous playoff meetings, the Canadiens hold a 24-7 advantage in this Original Six rivalry, which will welcome a new chapter Thursday when the teams open up their first-round series in Boston.

It seems like each time they lock horns with Montreal in the playoffs, the Bruins must overcome more than just the league's most storied franchise.

They must overcome history.

"You can't ignore it. It's there," Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said yesterday, referring to Boston's past playoff failures versus Montreal. "But we've played them so much, I think our guys know what to expect"

Really? Did they expect to see beefy Georges Laraque in the Habs lineup Thursday?

Brace yourselves. We may see exactly that.

After being bruised and battered by the ornery Bruins during a 5-4 overtime loss last Thursday, the Habs seem to be leaning toward dressing Laraque for Game 1. The muscular enforcer practised yesterday alongside Christopher Higgins and Glen Metropolit on the fourth line, an obvious message to the Bruins that the visitors will not be intimidated.

"Boston is a team that matches my style because they are a physical team," Laraque said. "It's going to be a physical series. We'll need everyone playing physically, but I compliment the guys with what I bring.

"I'm excited. Boston is a big rivalry and it's easy to get up for it."

With his team having been on the wrong end of countless face-washes in that game, Canadiens general manager/coach Bob Gainey feels Laraque can be a key to the series.

"He's got to be a good player for us," Gainey said. "He's had a season where injuries and problems kept him from being an active player the way we viewed him last summer -- as part of our 12-forward package.

"He brings a number of elements, including his physical side. His impact could be very positive for us."

There is no doubt the Habs are one of the softer teams in the playoff dance. The Bruins exposed that fact a year ago when the constant punishment dished out by fan favourite Milan Lucic on the forecheck caused havoc with the majority of Montreal defencemen, who often were looking over their shoulders in fear of being wallpapered.

Of all the Canadiens, the player who stood up most to Lucic during last year's series was gritty blueliner Mike Komisarek. He paid the price for that five days ago when he was mugged by Lucic and was used as a punching bag by towering Zdeno Chara, who is much healthier than he was for the playoffs a year ago.

Asked yesterday if he was a target, Komisarek replied: "Ask them. We'll see. The physical game is always fun to play."

If Komisarek was, in fact, a target, he won't be the only one. The Bruins are well aware of Mathieu Schneider's shoulder problems and will try to hit him at every opportunity.

During his days working in the Ottawa Senators front office, Chiarelli figured the Battle of Ontario was as intense as it could get. Now that he has been afforded a real taste of what a Bruins-Canadiens series brings to the table, he has changed his opinion.

"I thought the Ottawa-Toronto rivalry was big," he said. "But it pales in comparison to this one.

"It's going to be electric."


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