Montreal's Brandon Prust fights Tampa's Braydon Coburn (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHL via Getty images)
Brandon Prust's public war with referee Brad Watson highlights a growing problem with Montreal: letting emotions get the better of them in playoff series.
There's something awfully familiar about the Montreal Canadiens in the 2014-15 playoffs. It's not "last year" familiar. It's more "two years ago" familiar.
Remember Montreal's short run in the 2013 post-season? It was a mostly disastrous five-game loss to the Ottawa Senators. In Game 1, Sens D-man Eric Gryba knocked out Habs center Lars Eller with an illegal hit to the head, resulting in a two-game suspension. Paul MacLean, Ottawa's coach at the time, got under Montreal's skin afterward by blaming the hit on a suicide pass from "player 61," a.k.a. Eller's teammate Raphael Diaz. Ottawa won the game 4-2. Montreal agitator Brandon Prust spoke out against MacLean, telling media "I don't care what that fat, bug-eyed walrus has to say."
Montreal bounced back to win Game 2, but it got ugly in Game 3. The less-skilled Senators drew the Habs into a street fight. A whopping 236 penalty minutes ensued, and Ottawa won 6-1 thanks to a truckload of power play goals. MacLean called a timeout with 17 seconds left, and Canadiens coach Michel Therrien chowed down on the bait, calling MacLean "classless" after the defeat. The Sens won Game 4 in overtime, with Carey Price getting injured, and crushed Montreal 6-1 again in Game 5.
So why dig up a series from two years ago? Because the Habs let their emotions take over, and it was their downfall. They lost focus and let the scrappier team goad them into brawling, ugly style of play and a war of words. Media coverage of the series swirled around cheap shots and name calling. And it appears the same thing is happening in Montreal's series with Tampa Bay, though the venom is directed more at the officiating than the Lightning.
First there was the Game 1 controversy. Nikita Kucherov's overtime winner should not have counted, so the Habs had a legit case.
"It's frustrating," Therrien said at the post-game presser. "It's one thing when you lose on a judgement call, but an offside is black and white, and to me it was clearly offside."
Therrien was simply answering a question honestly, but the narrative was clear: the Game 1 loss was not our fault.
Then came Game 2, a.k.a. Brandon Prust Theatre. The Habs took 13 penalties, including six for Prust alone, who was booked for:
(a) hitting Braydon Coburn with a barrage of punches, while Coburn didn't take the bait;
(b) unsportsmanlike conduct after criticizing referee Brad Watson's call;
(c) tripping Bolts goalie Ben Bishop;
(d) fighting Coburn, who wisely waited until the game was out of reach to challenge Prust;
(e) a 10-minute misconduct
(f) a game misconduct
And for good measure, Prust threw his elbow pad at Steven Stamkos after receiving the game misconduct.
Prust ended up with 31 PIM. The Lightning scored four power play goals. Montreal fell to 0-7 against them this season. The storyline afterward was Prust lamenting all the horrible things Watson allegedly said, and the fact Watson was "playing God" with his calls.
"He tries to control the game, and he did that tonight," Prust told media.
For the second straight game, a member of the Habs blamed the result on an external factor. They were screwed by the offside in Game 1 and screwed by Brad Watson in Game 2, according to Prust's account, which was more a complaint than a team rallying cry.
If Montreal has any interest in extending the series beyond a four-game sweep, accountability is a good place to start. Stop pointing at the referees and start pointing at yourselves. Discipline is everything, especially against a talent-rich team like Tampa that can punish you every time you give them an opportunity, hence the four power play goals on four shots. At the very least, the Habs must show in Game 3 that Prust's opinions don't reflect their team mentality, that most of them can keep their composure. Tampa has to know how frustrated its opponent is now and will try to provoke Montreal, and Prust in particular, into more undisciplined behavior. It won't be too hard to get him tossed back into the sin bin now that he's kicked the hornet's nest by insulting the league's officials. Ask Alexandre Burrows how that worked out.
It's at least a positive omen that Prust apologized publicly to Watson on Tuesday.
"It was tough, it was emotional," Prust told reporters. "I had just gotten in a fight, we had just lost 6-2 and five minutes later I was doing interviews. I wasn't myself. My emotions were – my heart was beating, I was agitated – and I shouldn't have been doing the interviews."
So when even Prust admits emotions got the better of him, maybe he and his team realize it's time for cooler heads to prevail. If Tampa jumps out to an early lead in Game 3, however, the Habs may truly unravel.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin