Are the Canadiens tough enough to compete in the East?

It's Hockey Day In Canada today, so naturally the biggest story for the Montreal Canadiens is that time-honored query of any hockey team that gets pushed around by a rival:

Are they tough enough? And if not, what should they do about it?

While the Tim Thomas/Carey Price wrestling match grabbed the headlines, the main storyline emerging from Wednesday's mess-of-an-8-6 loss to the Boston Bruins was that the Big Bad Bruins were back and the Canadiens didn't have an answer for them.

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Former Habs and current rabble-rousers Mario Tremblay of RDS and Chris Nilan, appearing on The Team 990, both bemoaned the lack of toughness the Canadiens exhibited, as the Habs head into tonight's rivalry game with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada. From the Gazette:

"Let's say Montreal finishes eighth this season, they're going to play against the Flyers," Tremblay said. "I don't think they have enough toughness to play against that team. And let's say they finish sixth and play against Boston, it will be the same s---."

Said Nilan: "With a team like (the Canadiens), with the smaller guys like (Scott) Gomez, (Michael) Cammalleri, you definitely have to have a cast of characters around that can protect them and play a physical game. Not only to protect them and be there for them, but so they can score goals five-on-five. They can't score goals five-on-five because they don't have the size. If they score off the rush, fine, but they're not going to score off the dump ... regain control of the puck and then make plays at the net ... it's just not going to happen."

But can bringing in some hired muscle change the DNA of this team?

The characterization of the Canadiens as Smurfs is, of course, completely disparaging were it not so accurate. But Mike Boone of the Gazette said it best in discussing the makeup of the Canadiens vs. what some want them to become after that Bruins loss:

But I doubt the presence of Alex Henry(notes) would have turned Milan Lucic(notes) into Jason Blake(notes). Unless the Vegan Avenger, Georges Laraque(notes), is about to roar out of retirement, the Canadiens are hard-pressed to match Boston's beef.

Barring yet another radical makeover, the Canadiens are what they are: a fast, skilled team that wins with great goaltending, five-man D, good special teams and discipline. Recent history suggests that's not quite enough to beat the Flyers, but the Bruins have not ascended to Philadelphia's level of invincibility.

Rather than the need for extra grit or muscle, the mindset from the Habs seems to be to take their lumps and make their opponents pay.From the Canadian Press after the Bruins loss:

[Defenseman James] Wisniewski said a strong power play is the best deterrent to teams that want to goon it up. "If teams are going to do that then our power play has to step up and make them hurt that way," he said. "That's the way you can beat teams with that style of play - every time they take a penalty, score a power-play goal.

"Guys stuck up for each other. We were a little outmatched. They might be the toughest team in the league and we don't have a lot of guys who have that element in their game, but they stepped up to the plate and they showed their character."

So barring a trade for added stoutness on the roster, that's how the Canadiens will counterpunch.

It's probably not what the fans want to hear -- there's a 34-page thread on the HF Boards dedicated to the team's toughness or lack of it -- but it's how this roster was constructed. And it's a roster Jacques Martin feels has shown to be up to the toughness test in the past:

"I think we have some grit and we showed it last year at playoff time," Martin said Thursday. "We played some pretty physical teams in the (Washington) Capitals and Pittsburgh (Penguins) and came out on top.

Before, of course, losing to the Bullies.

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