BOSTON -- When the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule was released early last month, it was a bit of a disappointment that the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens weren't showcased as top billing to reintroduce the NHL to the hockey world.
There's no denying the fantastic and exhilarating matchup between the Bruins and New York Rangers. It was on display during the season opener on Jan. 19 as Boston beat New York 3-1 at TD Garden. The teams laced 'em up again four days later and this time the Rangers skated away with a 4-3 overtime win at Madison Square Garden.
There's a strong possibility these teams could meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and if that happens, it would be exciting hockey.
But nothing beats when the Bruins and Canadiens face off.
It shouldn't have taken this long. It's here now, though, and both teams are playing extremely well.
Boston is atop the Northeast Division with a 6-1-1 record for 13 points, with Montreal a close second with a 6-2-0 mark for 12 points.
"I think it's a great rivalry for us against that team, but you've got to acknowledge the fact that they are probably better than a lot of people had given them credit for," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "They give us good games all the time and that's the fun part about it. We go over there and we're excited about playing that team."
The Bruins were 4-2-0 against Montreal during the 2011-12 season.
"They give us a tough game every year no matter where they are in the standings," Julien said. "We know they're a tough match for us."
The Bruins played one of their best overall games of the season in a 1-0 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Boston's defensive game was sound and Julien hopes to have a repeat performance on Wednesday against the Habs.
"We have to approach the game a lot like we did against Toronto," Julien said. "If you give them some run through the neutral zone, and some speed, they become very dangerous. We have to make sure we don't get caught deep in their end and give them an opportunity to attack on three-on-twos."
Plus, with defenseman P.K. Subban back in the lineup after a brief contract holdout, Montreal again is a dangerous team. The Canadiens are definitely a different team from the one that finished in last place a season ago.
"They're playing with an edge right now and when you play with an edge those things are going to happen," Julien said.
After finishing in last place, the Montreal organization went through a complete overhaul during the summer. The team named Marc Bergevin general manager and Michel Therrien head coach.
"They had a lot of key guys injured [last season], so they were never able to get their second wind. Once you derail, it's hard to get back on track," Julien said. "They certainly weren't as bad as the standings showed.
"Now, being healthy for the moment, with a new coach, a new GM and everything else brings some new life in there. They seem to have caught fire. It's going to be a good game for us. It's a battle for first place."
Both teams have been backed with solid goaltending. The Bruins' Tuukka Rask has played seven of the team's eight games and boasts a 5-1-1 record with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage. The Canadiens' Carey Price is 6-1-0 in seven starts with a 1.70 GAA and a .938 save percentage.
"Their goaltending's been good," Julien said. "Carey Price has been good for them."
From a physical standpoint, the Bruins are expecting to land in the box more against the Canadiens. Discipline will be important for Boston, but fortunately it has a solid penalty-killing unit. The Bruins are ranked second in the league with a 94.1 percent success rate on the PK. They've successfully killed off 32 of 34 power-play chances for the opposition.
"We have to be extra disciplined," Julien said. "We're big. We're bigger than they are as a team, but at times it ends up being tough on us.
"We've got to go in there and be ready. When we've gone in there and haven't done the job that we should against that team, they've made us pay for it."
Eight games into the abbreviated schedule, many players talked after Monday's practice about how quickly one-sixth of the season has passed. Before they know it, the regular season will be over, and if Boston can continue to win Northeast Division games, the Bruins should find themselves in a good position once the playoffs begin.
"You think about it, yeah, we've played eight games and there's only 40 games left," forward Rich Peverley said. "Every division game is important, especially with a shortened season, so if we can have a big game against [Montreal on Wednesday] night it's real important."
Because the Bruins already are dealing with injuries to key players, the organization recalled 21-year-old forward Ryan Spooner on an emergency basis from Providence of the AHL. Bruins forward Brad Marchand (upper body) will be a game-time decision, and if he can't play, Spooner will make his NHL debut.
"Growing up, I was a big Montreal fan and my dad was a big Montreal fan," Spooner said. "Obviously, I was trying to be like him and then I got drafted by Boston and now I'm a Boston fan. I think if I got a chance to [play Wednesday] it would be cool."
He never attended a game at Bell Centre as a kid, but did play there in a preseason game for the Bruins prior to the 2010-11 season and remembers it as loud and intimidating place.
Even for the Bruins' seasoned veterans, Montreal always has been a hostile environment. This matchup between the Bruins and Canadiens is one of the best in professional sports, especially hockey, and it won't disappoint during this condensed schedule.
It all begins Wednesday at Bell Centre in Montreal.
"Obviously, it's one of the rowdiest places to play, especially when we're playing there," Peverley said. "They're playing really well right now and when a team's confident, that's pretty dangerous. They're playing well and obviously their fans are happy, so we've got to go in there and play our game."