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BOSTON – Even as the Montreal Canadiens swept through the opening round of the playoffs — their first postseason series victory in four years — they knew that a more difficult challenge was next.
The Boston Bruins. Their Original Six rival. The defending Eastern Conference champions and the NHL's top team in the regular season.
"That's our measuring stick," forward Max Pacioretty said after the Canadiens beat the Bruins 3-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday night. "There's always been that rivalry, and that bad feeling between Boston and Montreal. Not just between the cities, but in the rooms, too."
Pacioretty scored the winner, and Carey Price made 29 saves to give the Canadiens a spot in the conference finals against the New York Rangers. Game 1 will be in Montreal on Saturday, with the rest of the schedule to be announced.
It's just the second time since winning their NHL-best 24th Stanley Cup title in 1993 that the Canadiens have reached the third round of the playoffs.
"You have an opportunity to get one step closer to the Stanley Cup," said Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban, the team's leading scorer in these playoffs. "We deserve it. We played hard. Nothing has come easy for us all year."
Dale Weise and Daniel Briere also scored for the Canadiens, who needed a win in Game 6 on Monday night to force the series to a seventh game. They beat Boston 4-0, then came to the TD Garden and Price dominated the Bruins again.
"Carey Price was outstanding. Gave them a chance to win every night," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of the goalie who backstopped Canada to Olympic gold in February. "You play the way he did, it gives his team a lot of confidence and one of the keys to their success."
The Canadiens scored just 2:18 into the game to quiet the Boston crowd and then made it 2-0 midway through the second period. Jarome Iginla made it 2-1 at the end of the second, but Briere chipped in a power-play goal off Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara's skate with about 3 minutes left to make it 3-1.
"We just beat the best team in the league," Montreal coach Michel Therrien said. "Down 3-2 and (we) showed a lot of character, a lot of passion. To win a series in Boston, it is a tough place for people to come and play here."
Tuukka Rask made 15 saves for the Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and returned to the finals last year. Boston finished with the best record in the regular season this year, but its road stopped against the Original Six rival in another classic playoff series.
Rask said it was especially difficult to follow up a successful regular season with a playoff dud.
"Especially when you think you have a great team," he said. "We had a decent first series but this just shows that winning the regular season doesn't mean anything."
In front of boisterous crowds on both sides of the border, the Canadiens won the 34th playoff series between the two clubs — the ninth that went the seven-game distance. But after finishing the regular season with an NHL-best 117 points, home-ice advantage meant little to the Bruins.
The crowd was stunned in the opening minutes when Briere dug a pass out of the left corner and centered to Weise, who redirected it past Rask. The Canadiens made it 2-0 midway through the second period when David Desharnais chased down a loose puck to set up a 2-on-1 with Pacioretty, who one-timed it past Rask.
Boston made it a one-goal game when Torey Krug's wrist shot was deflected into the net by Iginla with just 2:02 left in the second period. But despite outshooting Montreal 21-12 over the final 40 minutes, the Bruins were not able to tie it up.
The Canadiens made it 3-1 when Johnny Boychuk drew an interference penalty with 4½ minutes to play. Briere shot the puck off Chara's skate and into the net.
NOTES: The teams last played a Game 7 in the first round in 2011, when the Bruins won in overtime en route to the Stanley Cup title. ... The team that scored the first goal won every game. ... Boston coach Claude Julien tied Mike Keenan with 10 Game 7s, the most in NHL history. ... Chara's 11 Game 7s are the most of any active player. ... Iginla's goal snapped Price's shutout streak of 103:46.