The oddsmakers have made their first, tentative statement. Bodog.com has the Flyers as slight favorites to win the NHL Eastern Conference semifinal against the Montreal Canadiens. Another site I saw has them essentially even. It seems fitting, as the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds continue to find a place to sprout in rocky ground.
The Canadiens have the better goaltender in Jaroslav Halak. The Flyers have the deeper, healthier defense, led by Chris Pronger. Halak has played about two iffy games in this post-season, about six good ones and about six otherworldly ones. It is hard to believe that the Flyers' Michael Leighton will be able to match that, given everything he has been through to get here. At the same time, the Flyers' top two defense pairs (Pronger-Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen-Braydon Coburn) have now gotten through two rounds both healthy and very confident. On the other side, Montreal is really banged up and patching its defense as best it can, with the emergence of a dynamic kid named PK Subban as the wildcard.
The Canadiens are neutral-zone clogging kind of team under coach Jacques Martin. It can be an infuriating style to watch, or play against. There were times in that Pittsburgh series when it didn't even look as if the Canadiens were trying to score. But here's the thing: if you are a skating team, a team insistent upon carrying the puck through the neutral zone to start your attack, a stubborn team that will not give up the notion that skill can beat any system, then you are going to find yourself tied up in frustrating knots. I didn't see every game, but my overall sense is that both Washington and Pittsburgh found themselves maddeningly ensnared in that web too often.
The Flyers are not unlike those teams in that they feel they have skill and they are best, it seems, when they can make that dagger cross-ice pass through the neutral zone to start the rush. In this series, against the Canadiens, good luck with that. The difference here is that the Flyers do have a Plan B that they don't hate: a willingness to throw the puck into the zone and go get it. They don't want that as a first option but they are more than willing to throw it into the corner and pursue it with two forecheckers and a third man at the top of the circle. They will either come up with the puck and set up their offense that way, or they will bruise a defenseman in the process. They really are fine playing that way.
It's going to be a hard-work kind of a series, and it's going to be a low-shot, low-scoring kind of a series. And, well, put it this way: the more wide open it is, the more it will favor the Flyers.
One other thing: I have no inside information, but my guess is that Mike Richards and Pronger will be asked to do everything in their power to put an end to the Mike Cammalleri show (12 goals and 6 assists so far). If they can do that -- and I think they can -- I'm just not sure the Canadiens have enough firepower to get this done.
Flyers in seven, then.