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GAME: Montreal Canadiens (41-30-7-4) at Boston Bruins (41-19-5-7).
PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference quarterfinal; Game 1.
TIME: Wednesday, 7 p.m. EDT.
The Northeast Division champion Boston Bruins are coming off their best regular season in more than a decade.
That doesn't mean they don't have major questions entering their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the rival Montreal Canadiens.
The biggest concern for the Bruins is the status of captain and leading scorer Joe Thornton, who missed the final two games of the regular season with an "upper body injury." Thornton appeared to injure his ribs Thursday against Washington and was forced to sit out a home-and-home series against New Jersey as Boston was fighting for the division title.
"Obviously, if he was healthy enough to play, he'd be here playing," assistant GM Jeff Gorton said Sunday. "Joe wants to play. We want him to play. He's going to play when he's ready. He's not ready to play."
Thornton's absence would leave a huge void for the Bruins, hoping to avenge a first-round loss to Montreal two seasons ago when they were the top seed in the East. Boston has lost 22 of 29 postseason series against the Canadiens.
"We're looking at much bigger goals than beating Montreal," Bruins defenseman Sean O'Donnell said. "We think this team can make some noise in the playoffs. The fact that we drew Montreal in the first round, we'll give them the best shot we can to eliminate them, but we're looking at much higher goals than just kind of payback from two years ago."
Goaltending is the biggest part of any postseason series, and this series should be no exception.
Jose Theodore, the Hart and Vezina Trophy winner in 2001-02, will carry the load for the Canadiens. He will be opposed by Boston's Andrew Raycroft, a leading contender for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.
Theodore was very good in leading the Canadiens to a six-game upset of the Bruins two seasons ago, but struggled in the conference semifinals against Carolina. He is 7-8 with a 2.65 goals-against average in his postseason career.
An outstanding season from Raycroft was one of the main reasons Boston finished with 104 points - its highest total since the 1992-93 team had 109. Raycroft, 23, had 29 wins, a 2.05 GAA and a .926 save percentage in 57 games this season, but playoff pressure is something he's never dealt with at this level.
"He'll play the way he can and I'll do my best, too," said Theodore. "I don't look at it as an individual challenge."
With Thornton, Glen Murray, Sergei Samsonov and Sergei Gonchar, the Bruins have more prominent names than the Canadiens, but the teams were evenly matched in several categories this season.
Boston scored 209 goals and posted a 2.24 goals-against average while Montreal had 208 goals and a 2.31 GAA. In six regular season meetings, the Bruins outscored the Canadiens 9-7.
"For whatever reason, we seem to match up well with them," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. "Maybe they have the size advantage and we have fairly good speed. I don't think it will be much different in the playoffs."
Montreal's best offensive players this season were 24-year-old left wing Mike Ribeiro - the team leader with 65 points - and right wing Michael Ryder, the rookie scoring leader with 63 points.
Strong performances from captain Saku Koivu and enigmatic Alex Kovalev would be a huge help to the Canadiens.
Koivu missed 13 games early with a knee injury and managed only 14 goals in 68 games. Kovalev has been a major disappointment since coming over in a trade with the New York Rangers, producing one goal and three points in 12 games.
Boston and Montreal have undergone significant changes since meeting in the 2001-02 quarterfinals.
Both teams have changed coaches and the Canadiens have a new general manager. The Bruins have 13 players who didn't play in that series while Montreal has 10 newcomers.
Game 2 is Friday at Boston.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Canadiens - 93 points; 7th seed. Bruins - 104 points; 2nd seed.
FINAL TEAM LEADERS: Canadiens - Richard Zednik, 26 goals; Ribeiro, 45 assists and 65 points; Darren Langdon, 135 PIM. Bruins - Murray, 32 goals; Thornton, 50 assists and 73 points; Doug Doull, 132 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Canadiens - Power play: 17.2 percent (55 for 319), 10th in NHL. Penalty killing: 82.5 percent (259 for 314), 22nd. Bruins - Power play: 16.0 percent (48 for 300), 17th. Penalty killing: 83.6 percent (280 for 335), 19th.
GOALTENDERS: Canadiens - Theodore (33-28-5, 6 SO, 2.27 GAA); Mathieu Garon (8-6-2, 2.27). Bruins - Raycroft (29-18-9, 3, 2.05); Felix Potvin (12-8-6, 4, 2.50)
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Bruins, 3-1-1-1. Four of the six games went to overtime, with Boston winning once and Montreal posting both of its victories in the extra session. Theodore was 2-2-1 with a .952 save percentage in the series and Raycroft was just as good, going 2-1-1 with a .946 save percentage.