For a man who spent his journeyman playing career riding buses across the netherworlds of minor-league hockey — and saw just fourteen NHL games with the Quebec Nordiques during his dozen years putting on the pads and going out to play defense from Halifax to Salt Lake City — rising to the rarefied heights of the coaching pantheon with two Original Six teams is a rare thing indeed. From his unassuming upbringing in a small community on the shores of Lake Huron, through a hardscrabble youth to legendary status amongst coaches, Claude Julien remains that figure you’d least suspect to make history.
Seven years ago Claude Julien came into Boston as the chief representative of the enemy. Two games earlier the Canadiens had staved off elimination by beating the Bruins on their home ice and cutting a 3-1 series deficit to 3-2. After their return home to Montreal, the Habs had set up a do-or-die Game 7. It looked like the contest was headed to overtime, running scoreless midway into the third period, when Montreal and Boston lined up for a faceoff to the left of goalie Andrew Raycroft in the Bruins defensive zone. Saku Koivu won the faceoff for the visitors with a brush to his left, and Alex Kovalev swept up the puck and immediately headed behind the net.
Wrapping around, with a Bruin draped over him, he looked back to find Zednik following behind him. Shifting the puck on his stick the Russian sent it toward the net, finding his Slovak linemate for the tip-in past the near post and Raycroft’s outstretched pad for a lead that would not be relinquished. Then Claude Julien had taken a small, fleet-footed squad in the lumbering neutral-zone era and done the unthinkable, winning three straight elimination games to advance from behind in a series for the first time in Montreal’s history.
But that kind of success as a neophyte NHL head coach, on the heels of his stellar work with Montreal’s farm club in Hamilton, was not enough in a league where a third year is often a curse disguised as a blessing for the hottest new coaches. After keeping a struggling club feeling out its way in the post-lockout NHL floating above .500 at 19-16-6 through the first half of the 2005-06 season, Julien was rewarded by GM Bob Gainey with walking papers. A guy who once looked on a fast track to be the next legend in the mold of Dick Irvin, Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman was instead just another bit of fodder on the coaching carousel.
So it was that, after a short stint under Lou Lamoriello’s thumb in New Jersey, Julien made his way to Boston and a spot behind the Bruins’ bench. His first year with the club, he was forced to come face to face in the first round of the playoffs with the franchise that had molded him into a head coach. Through six games the teams traded punches, and Julien had once again worked his magic in guiding the Bruins from 3-1 down in the series to force a Game 7. Yet while that first chance for revenge against the Habs came up short, Julien guided Boston to another matchup against their rivals in 2009.
It was this series where he set his next milestone. The woebegone Canadiens never had a chance, getting swept by Julien’s Bruins in a display of one-sided dominance rarely seen in their 31 previous playoff encounters. It turned out to be another ex-Hab, Michael Ryder, who tapped the nails into his former team’s coffin with two goals and an assist in the deciding game. The victory would be the first series win for Boston in a decade, and immortalized Julien as the only coach to win a playoff series on both sides of the rivalry.
But his history wasn’t done yet. This season saw him one-up his own real-life fairy tale when the two teams dueled yet again in the playoffs. Meeting for the 33rd time in Stanley Cup postseason play, the Habs stole away home-ice advantage with two big road wins to open the first-round series. Boston recovered in Montreal to level things up at two games apiece, and then took the upper hand with the first win at home by either team.
But the Habs would work their own magic, and for the eighth time in the interwoven histories of the two franchises they would go the distance. Game 7… no two teams have played more decisive playoff games against one another in any sport than have the Bruins and Canadiens.
Julien, coaching in his third career Boston-Montreal decider, found his luck holding firm. The Bruins had the lead late into the third period, looking set to advance, until P.K. Subban cranked a shot from the point that slipped through traffic and past Tim Thomas for the tying goal. Overtime now loomed, and the next puck to cross the line would send the scoring team through to the conference semifinals. Montreal ramped up the pressure, but Thomas wasn’t about to let another shot squirt through.
Instead it was Nathan Horton, finally tasting postseason action for the first time after escaping the NHL’s sunny equivalent of a Siberian gulag that is the Florida Panthers, who proved himself the hero. Parking in prime position in front of the crease, Horton corralled a perfect pass and unleashed a screamer past Habs goalie Carey Price. As the lamp lit up and the scoreboard tallied the game-winner, celebration erupted amongst the home crowd as they survived the final challenges from their rival and advanced again to the second round.
And thus history continued to write itself with the most unlikely of characters at its center. Deemed a castoff by one side in the rivalry less than three years into his tenure despite his unprecedented comeback playoff success as a rookie coach, Julien has reinvented himself as a B-clad savior in Boston. Thanks to players like Zednik and Ryder and Horton, Claude Julien has done things no other NHL head coach has ever done.
He’s won as a Hab over the Bruins. He’s won as a Bruin over the Habs. He’s won Game 7s on both sides of the divide, knocking his future club out of the 2004 playoffs before doing the same to his former franchise in 2009 and 2011. None of the legends who have sat behind either bench can boast such illustrious feats, thriving in the boiler-room heat that consistently surrounds any meeting of these legendary teams and doing it for both of them. Many have won more Stanley Cups with one or the other of the teams, but none have ever dared to cross into enemy territory to replicate success in reverse. It is that adaptability that cements Julien’s place in the history of the Bruins-Habs rivalry…