B's, Habs begin new chapter in bitter rivalry

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Former Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference best described the hatred between Boston and the Montreal Canadiens without saying a word.

It was during Game 4 of the 2011 Eastern Conference quarterfinals when Ference scored a crucial game-tying goal and celebrated by giving the 21,273 fans at Bell Centre what appeared to be the middle finger.

After the Bruins won that game 5-4 in overtime, he called it a glove malfunction. But when the Bruins ended the series with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 7, one of Ference’s teammates described it as the turning point of the season, and it set the tone for the remainder of the playoffs en route to the team’s first Stanley Cup title in 39 years.

That gesture was part of a long history of gamesmanship between these two organizations. This rivalry can be considered one of the greatest in hockey, and each new generation of players appreciates it and adds to its legacy.

“It’s special,” said Bruins forward Shawn Thornton. “If you can’t get up for the Montreal Canadiens, you’re probably in the wrong business. These are always fun games, especially playing in that barn. It’s a pretty intense barn to play in and I really enjoy it.”

Currently, only three points separate the Bruins (38) and Canadiens (35) for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Montreal defeated the New Jersey Devils, 3-2, Monday night and will play the second game of a home-and-home series Wednesday night in New Jersey.

The standings are tight, and Thursday night at Bell Centre will be the first time this season the Bruins and Canadiens will face off.

The Canadiens are a skilled team with size and strength, and the solid goaltending of Carey Price. Bruins coach Claude Julien has done his homework and understands the challenge his team faces on Thursday.

“They’re playing well, playing really well,” Julien said. “As you can see lately, they’ve been a really good team, won a lot of games. Sometimes you get on a roll as a team and right now everything seems to be going well for them.”

Julien grew up in Ottawa and was a fan of the Canadiens. He eventually coached Montreal’s AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, before being named coach of the Canadiens, where he spent parts of three seasons behind their bench. He knows firsthand how each side of this rivalry works.

“There’s as much... hatred in a rivalry way on both sides,” explained Julien. “It’s pretty amazing how in this game, like when I was with the [Quebec] Nordiques I hated the Canadiens, yet I grew up a Canadiens fan. Then you go back and work there, so you become a fan again. Now, you’re with the Boston Bruins, and rivalry-wise you don’t like them.

“Right now, that’s the way I feel. I don’t like them and I really don’t like them on that side because I’m a Boston Bruin.”

Julien appreciates this rivalry, too, and believes a win on the enemy’s ice will serve the Bruins well.

“The whole atmosphere there is pretty special,” Julien said of the Bell Centre. “They’re THE team in that city, so everything revolves around the Montreal Canadiens. When you go in there you can sense the electricity in the air and it’s a special place to play, but it’s also a fun place to play. It really gets your team ready for those kinds of games.”

Even though Bruins captain Zdeno Chara wasn’t the player who made the hand gesture toward the Canadiens fans in the spring of 2011, his mere presence in Canada, especially in Montreal, gets the fans riled up.

He has a history against the Canadiens (Max Pacioretty ring a bell?), and every time his name is announced, or he touches the puck, the negative reception is deafening.

“I really don’t pay too much attention to it,” said Chara. “They’re passionate fans and always cheer for their home team and that’s the way it should be. I’m trying to focus on what I do on the ice.

“We know what’s at stake. They have a good team and play really well. Those games are always intense and full of emotions. It’s physical and I don’t expect anything less. It’s going to be the same as always.”

There are a few newcomers to this rivalry.

Bruins forward Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson have played against the Canadiens before at Bell Centre, but never in a spoked-B sweater. They’ve heard the stories and watched the games on television. Now, they’re looking forward to experiencing it firsthand.

“Yeah, for sure,” Eriksson said. “Obviously I’ve heard a lot about them and I haven’t played many games in that rink in Montreal. It’s going to be fun to go there and play. It’s an awesome atmosphere there, so it’ll be fun to try to win the game. It’s going to be like a playoff game. It’s going to be intense, a good battle.”

Iginla concurred.

“I’m looking forward to being a part of it in person, and to feel it, because you see it on TV and you know the history. All games are fun to play in, but it’s fun to play in the ones that have a little bit more on the line with that rivalry there,” Iginla said.

The Bruins will spend the majority of this month on the road and it begins in Montreal. A win over the hated Habs could serve as a major momentum swing in the Atlantic Division. Thursday will be the first of four meetings between these teams, and if both continue to play well for the remainder of the season, the only finger pointing will be directed to the top spot in the division, and possibly the conference.