WILMINGTON, Mass. (AP) - Tim Thomas played in the NCAA Frozen Four, the world hockey championships and the finals of European pro leagues.
He thought he was ready.
Now he knows he wasn't.
"I thought, 'It can't be that much different.' I was wrong," the Boston Bruins goalie said this week as he recalled his NHL playoff debut against the Montreal Canadiens last year. "It was even more than what people were trying to tell me. It's funner, more emotional, more of an adrenaline rush than I could ever imagine."
The Bruins and Canadiens are at it again, hooking up for a first-round playoff series that begins Thursday night in Boston. It will be the 32nd postseason meeting - the most of any NHL matchup - between the Original Six and Northeast Division foes, including last year's series that Montreal won in seven games.
This year the seeds are swapped: Boston has the best record in the Eastern Conference and the Canadiens barely squeaked into the playoffs. But Bruins coach Claude Julien doesn't expect his team's 116 regular-season points or home ice advantage to intimidate the 23-time Stanley Cup champions.
"What counts is what happens on the ice," he said at the Bruins' practice facility this week. "Living on a reputation doesn't do anything for you."
That's good news for Boston, which hasn't won it all since Bobby Orr skated with the Cup in 1972 or even gotten out of the first round since '99, though they came closer than expected last year when they pushed the Canadiens to a seventh game. The tight series was even more surprising considering that Montreal had beaten Boston in 13 consecutive games and 25 of 29 before the Bruins took Game 3.
"Finally getting that big win, I think it just got everyone's confidence going as a team and finally knowing that we could beat them," said center Glen Metropolit, who played for the Bruins last season and is now with Montreal. "I think we knew we put a good fight up, you know what I mean. I think a lot of people counted us out, and to make it Game 7, it was something special.
"I don't want to say we were satisfied to make it to Game 7 - it would have been nice to win that - but it's one of those feelings I got: we gave it all we had and for what we had in the dressing room at the time, with guys being injured and everything like that, it was kind of like, 'OK, we proved (it) to everyone."'
Julien, who coached the Canadiens from 2002 until midway through the '05-06 season before he was fired by current Canadiens coach Bob Gainey, said after the Bruins got over the initial sting of the loss, "we were looking forward to getting back on the ice."
Once they did, they took off. Boston started this season 29-5-4 to run away with the Northeast, finishing 23 points ahead of second-place Montreal.
"It was a bit of a carry-over," Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. "Ultimately it put a good feeling into the room and the organization. We felt we were taking steps in the right direction."
A lot has changed for Montreal, too.
The Canadiens lost 12 of 15 games in late January and early February, and though they seemed to have snap out of it by winning six of eight Gainey fired Guy Carbonneau on March 9 and took over on the bench. Montreal seesawed to a 6-6-4 record under Gainey, losing their last four games to finish tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, but holding the tiebreaker over the Florida Panthers.
"All the players feel responsible for Carbonneau losing his job so probably (there's) shock, and the fear that we can be next," forward Tom Kostopoulos said.
The Canadiens were also a No. 8 seed in the playoffs in 2004, under Julien, when they bounced the top-seeded Bruins from the playoffs in seven games.
Michael Ryder, now with Boston, played for the other side in that one.
"It's going to be a little different, being on the other side, playing against a few friends," he said. "But come playoff time, I guess you don't have too many friends."