Philadelphia, PA – The postseason battle currently brewing between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens isn't the prettiest brand of hockey going on right now, but it's certainly been captivating.
Heading into this series, players from both the Canadiens and Senators downplayed this matchup as a rivalry. After all, many fans of both teams place the Toronto Maple Leafs at the top of their list of most-hated teams, forcing Ottawa and Montreal into a sort of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" situation.
However, it would be hard for anyone to deny the Sens-Habs rivalry now, especially after what transpired in Game 3 in Ottawa.
The Senators blitzed Montreal in a 6-1 rout on Sunday to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, but what really made headlines was the 236 penalty minutes amassed by two clubs that have learned to hate each other.
The NHL playoffs have their way of pitting two franchises against each other and making instant enemies out of them. Sure, Montreal and Ottawa have played in the same division for two decades now, but it's taken the first postseason encounter between the teams to truly bring out the animosity.
It's like grilling a steak: Marinating the meat for hours can only help, but it takes a few minutes on the flames to get the job done.
The bad blood in this series began in Game 1 when Ottawa defenseman Eric Gryba caught an unsuspecting Lars Eller with a vicious check, knocking the Canadiens forward out of the game and, perhaps, the series. The hit was analyzed from every angle, and as usual, some folks thought it was clean and part of the sport while others labeled it dirty.
While the league agreed with the latter group and handed Gryba a two-game suspension, Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean opined how Eller's injury was the fault of a bad pass from his teammate and not the result of a dirty hit.
MacLean's take didn't earn him any friends in the Montreal locker room, including Habs forward Brandon Prust, who responded to Ottawa's mustachioed coach by uttering the immortal words, "I don't care what that bug-eyed fat walrus says."
In Game 3, however, players were armed with more-than-clever insults, as a lopsided game on the scoreboard turned into a reason to fight. Kyle Turris scored seven minutes into the third period to make it 4-1 Ottawa and on the ensuing face-off a line brawl broke out among all 10 skaters on the ice.
"I haven't seen that in a long time in the National Hockey League. But that's hockey, stuff happens," Senators head coach Paul MacLean said. "I thought we reacted well under the circumstances and the duress that we were put under and we defended ourselves."
After the game, Montreal's Michel Therrien took umbrage with MacLean's decision to call a timeout with 18 seconds left in the third period, leading to another war of words between the two sides.
"You never want to humiliate the other team, and that's exactly what MacLean wanted to do. To me, it was a total lack of class," Therrien said. "Even when I said that to the referee, he said he'd never seen a timeout with 17 seconds to go. It was 6-1."
MacLean, of course, claimed he was only trying to protect his team.
"My only recourse was to take the timeout because I didn't want anyone to get hurt," MacLean said. "In order to protect my players under circumstance that were instigated by the Montreal Canadiens, I was forced to protect my players. I will do that every time."
MacLean was informed of Therrien's accusation that he called the timeout to "humiliate" the Canadiens, and Ottawa's bench boss shot right back.
"I think they were doing a pretty good job of that themselves," he said. "They didn't need my help at all."
While all this back and forth is fun for hockey fans, it doesn't seem to be doing any good for the second-seeded Canadiens, who seem to be bogged down in all the name calling.
Meanwhile, MacLean has a way of saying something controversial to the press while wearing a knowing smirk on his face. At times he appears to know exactly what he's doing and is almost baiting Montreal into focusing more on the extracurricular stuff rather than the game itself.
Down 2-1 in the series, the Canadiens will have their maturity tested again in Game 4 on Tuesday, when Gryba is due back in the lineup. Taking a page from his head coach, Gryba almost dared Montreal to lose its temper when the clubs reconvene at Ottawa's Scotiabank Place.
"I'm sure guys are going to look for an opportunity to take a run at me," Gryba said, according to Sportsnet's Ian Mendes.
It's Therrien's job to make sure his players aren't worried about Gryba, or the latest thing MacLean said.
Although the hatred built up in this series has been fun to watch from the outside, Montreal has to find a way to play smart amid the chaos or the Senators will frustrate them all the way to a first-round exit.