When Jacques martin spoke to the media during the first few days of his tenure in Montreal, one of the things he remarked on was the unsatisfactory fitness level of the team he saw before him. His comments (I wish I could find them now) bordered on alarm and his promise was that he would sort it out - but that it would take a long time.
Playing hockey takes a lot of energy and playing a full game at full stretch requires fitness. In the past, these requirements were underappreciated and teams won anyway simply because no one was fit. Sure there were occasional exceptions like Brind'amour and Chelios, but these players keeping fit were viewed as anomalies.
Somewhere along the line, though, some astute coaches realised that they could get wins out of lesser talent by taking some simple steps: making and keeping their competitors fit.
Admit it, the first time you saw the Senators conducting post-game interviews on a stationary bike, you balked. A few years later when the Habs couldn't hold a candle to the Senators, perhaps like me, your views evolved.
Jacques Martin, the common thread here, exploited the fitness imbalance in the league back then. With any luck, he'll be able to exploit it now. The advantage on fitness, which the Canadiens didn't possess in Fall 2009 is starting to show. It's rarely if ever mentioned, but fitness might just be the key for the Canadiens to beat these Bruins.
Here's what makes me think the Habs have the advantage:
1) Game 1
The Canadiens came out fierce and strong and took quick advantage of their sprint. But other than the quick goal, the hallmark of Game 1 was nullifying chances. Most observers agree that although the Habs let up a number of shots, few were threatening. I suggest this was in part due to the fact the Habs worked hard to always stay in shooting lanes, but late in the game partly due to the fact the Bruins were tiring and unable to break coverage. Just when the adrenaline should have caused them to surge most, the Bruins faltered. Witness 18 second period shots, 5 third period shots.
2) Zdeno Chara
Dehydration. I've gone there as an athlete. Cramps, dizziness. It always happens after lots of exertion. Chara may well be sick as well, but Game 1's toll on him was hard, and he adapted in Game 3. While he may be the best defender in the game, he may not be the fittest man in the game. I'd suggest that if he was worn down once due to the Canadiens effect on him, it could happen again.
3) Game 3, second half
Down by goals, the Habs had trouble getting traction in Game 3, but once they started pushing the sprinting legs, they created a breakthrough. To me it was evident they broke the Bruins at one point - that sprint you see in a 1500 m race where the pack breaks and the leaders appear to fly away.
Last game, it took the Canadiens time to start pressing the Bruins into expending their energy. Martin knows this was a mistake, as it flew in the face of the advantage he has tried to exploit. If the Habswant to win this game, this series. I'd suggest they listen to their coach. The Bruins are ripe to be worn down, and the Canadiens look capable of doing that.
Fitness. Seems so simple. It's amazing that nearly 100 years into this league a team of professional athletes might exploit this. Thankfully for the Habs, they seem to have noticed the low-hanging fruit before their rival Bruins have.