Children choose their favorite player in a simpler manner than adults. They want to be the best, emulate the best, and believe they will one day be the best, so they follow the best. This is why the best selling jerseys are stamped with James, Peterson, Trout, or Crosby, and these are the players that, when considering that pivotal game from a decade ago, envelop our brains in glory and awe. The Boston Bruins of a decade ago were dominated by Joe Thornton; equal parts skill, speed, and size made for a prototypical dominating center. Jose Theodore was the brick wall that entrapped all other thoughts; the Montreal goaltender was immense in style and unbeatable in net. This story is not specifically about Thornton and Theodore, just as it is not specifically about Bobby Orr or Rocket Richard or Patrick Roy or Phil Esposito, but it is also definitely about all of them, because it is a story about Bruins-Canadiens, the series that never ends.
Andrew Raycroft is more famous in Toronto than Boston. To New Englanders he was the forgettable bridge between Byron Dafoe and Tim Thomas, but in Maple Leafs lore he is a vehicle to scorn general managers, the dumbest of all the dumb moves the Leafs have made. Two years after this series, on the verge of release, Raycroft was shipped to Toronto in exchange for former first round goaltender Tuukka Rask, which has haunted Toronto from that day until this one and promises future haunting to boot. Raycroft in 2004, however, was the best young goaltender in the league. Overcoming his 5th round draft status to earn 5th place in the Vezina (and winning the Calder for fun), Andrew was the toast of a Bruins team that was expected to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Looming between the Bruins and history, however, were the Montreal Canadiens.
Alex Kovalev had played exactly twelve games for the Canadiens, and had only three points to show from them. Barely on the scouting report at the beginning of the series, Kovalev found a matchup he liked skating against the rugged but occasionally plodding Bruins Hal Gill and Nick Boynton. A scoreless first game became an assist in the second became four goals in the next four games, and no-name Alex Kovalev was the embodiment of beginner's luck. He wasn't the only winger with his sights up though.
Sergei Samsonov was my first favorite player. He was a decent winger with the Bruins for a while, but never an elite skater or a physical defender. Samsonov really had only one great skill; his aim was impeccable. He had the softest stick I'd ever seen, and I was convinced he could physically shoot a needle out of a haystack. Against the Canadiens in 2004, he felt that way too. Two assists in two wins set the tone for a brutal Bruins beatdown, and another Game 4 assist all but sent Montreal home for the winter. The FleetCenter wasn't able to finish the job in a gentleman's sweep, but Sergei Samsonov came ready to blast away on the return to Quebec. The only downside was that he was the only Bruin there. Despite his two goals, the series followed through on its destiny, and Boston was due to host yet another Game 7 in this insatiable rivalry.
As always, the game was size against speed. As always, speed killed. Raycroft performed exactly to expectations, stopping everything Montreal threw at him for two and a half periods. The problem for Andrew was that Jose Theodore picked a heck of a game to vacuum up the Bruins offense. Sergei couldn't pick a corner, Joe Thornton was nobody, and Alex Kovalev's miss with nine minutes to play gave Richard Zednik exactly as much time and space as necessary to win the series. It took just one burst, but the speed of Les Habs was too much for the strength of Boston.
Coming into the series Montreal coach Claude Julien was known to tell his team that they had no right to be worried; that they had won the same amount of games as Boston and they weren't about to stop now. He was sort of right, as they ended up winning exactly one more game than the Bruins, getting swept in the second round by the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Julien leads the Bruins into the TD Garden tonight to mirror his past success from the other side. The matchup is still power against speed, but the names and faces have gone through some change. This time the immensity belongs to defensive stalwarts Zdeno Chara and PK Subban, while the speed and sniping is property of Brad Marchand and Max Pacioretty. The constant of this series is one man, and Patrice Bergeron is likely the deciding factor in this series. As an 18 year old he put up four points in the seven game series; at 28 he has nine points in eleven games. While the names change, the game remains the same, and Patrice Bergeron is in the center of it as always.