Habs take licking, but can they keep ticking?

While they're doing just fine in the win column, the Montreal Canadiens have been taking it on the chin, literally, of late. Can the Habs survive in the playoffs if they continue to absorb physical beatings from their opponents? Radio-Canada's Guillaume Lefrancois delivers his thoughts.

Canadiens absorbing physcial punishment from opponents

Montreal's Travis Moen, centre, had to be helped from the ice after being roughed up during a game in Boston this week. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Old-school wrestling fans can certainly relate to the Habs these days.

Back in the 1980s, the late, great Macho Man Randy Savage was an expert at bouncing back from a beating. Whether he was getting clobbered on the head by the Honky Tonk Man’s guitar or enduring Ric Flair’s figure-four leg lock for minutes on end, Macho Man would always rally the fans behind him as he’d make a courageous comeback and end up with his hand raised by the referee.

The Montreal Canadiens have followed the old Randy Savage plot in the last week.

First, they announced last Friday that Brandon Prust wouldn’t be back until — at least — the playoffs, as he suffered yet another upper-body injury. The next day against the rugged Toronto Maple Leafs, Lars Eller fell to a lower-body injury and had to miss Monday’s game in Boston.

Already down two forwards, Montreal then proceeded to lose two more bodies up front in the form of Dale Weise and Travis Moen early in the first frame against the Bruins.

So after losing their entire fourth line in a span of three days, and despite putting No. 2 goalie Peter Budaj between the pipes, what did the Canadiens do against the best team in the East? They pulled off their gutsiest victory of the season, a 2-1 shootout win.

Just like last year

Hockey, however, is not pro wrestling. It is not scripted, and as fun as it is to cheer for the smaller guys, they don’t often end up on top after taking a whipping.

Take last year’s first-round playoff series between the Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators. The Montreal casualties were numerous: Eller (concussion), Prust (shoulder), Brian Gionta (biceps), Carey Price (knee) and Ryan White (lung). On top of that, Francis Bouillon (finger) and Max Pacioretty (shoulder) both admitted they played hurt.

Monday’s game in Boston was reminiscent of that. Bruins defenceman Kevan Miller hurt both Weise and Moen on the very same shift, first by hitting Weise near the wall, then by punching Moen in the face when Montreal’s No. 32 was looking for retaliation.
Coach Therrien has said time and again that the off-season acquisitions of George Parros and Douglas Murray brought the Canadiens a form of “respect” that the team didn’t have last year.

While it may have been true in the first few months of the season, one has to wonder if it’s still the case. Parros has suffered two concussions so far this season and has only played 10 games in 2014, while Murray’s presence didn’t prevent Miller from taking out two of the team’s tougher players in Moen and Weise.

Nor did it discourage Milan Lucic from going after Alexei Emelin — a big defenceman who hits hard but can’t fight, due to the titanium plates in his face from an injury sustained in the KHL. And in that same game, Bruins rearguard Johnny Boychuk wanted a piece of P.K. Subban. The reigning Norris Trophy winner sure can defend himself, but the best player on the team can’t spend the whole night in the sin bin, now can he?

Sure, the Canadiens were able to escape with the victory. But if they’re going to win a best-of-seven series this way, they will need to produce immediate power-play results. At this point, that seems like the best way for them to fight back.

Reasons for optimism

Fear not, Canadiens fans, it’s not all darkness and gloom. A Montreal-Tampa Bay first-round series is looking very likely now, and the Lightning don't play the same brand of physical hockey as the Bruins, the Senators or the Maple Leafs. Steven Stamkos and company won’t pound and smash their way through the series, although the addition of Ryan Callahan has given the Lightning some extra toughness.

In addition, the Carey Price who's defending the Habs’ net this season is miles ahead of the goalie who struggled mightily last spring. The Olympic gold medallist can now regularly steal games for the Canadiens, which he didn’t often do last season.

So, are the Canadiens back to square one? They sure have found other ways to win games this season. But, physically, they could end up like Macho Man, down and almost out, looking for the chance to deliver the decisive flying elbow.

Or score the big goal — perhaps a more effective signature move in hockey.

This week’s numbers

7: Third-period goals by forward Daniel Brière this season. Only Max Pacioretty has more for the Habs. Not bad for the 10th-most used forward on the team.

7-1-1: The Canadiens’ record when Rene Bourque scores a goal this season. As good as the record is, it also indicates the big winger has scored in only nine of the 55 games he’s played.

7-1-2: The Canadiens’ record in their last 10 division games. The team sits second in the Atlantic Division and could have home-ice advantage in the first round, should it maintain its position. Apparently, beating teams in your own division helps.


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