It has been just two years since the Flyers and Montreal Canadiens last met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Flyers dispatched Cup hungry Montreal in five games on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Starting tonight, the Flyers and Canadiens will clash in a best-of-seven series for the right to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Finals. Amazingly, the seventh-seeded Flyers hold home-ice advantage over the eighth-seeded Canadiens. This is the first time a seven has ever played an eight in the Conference Finals.
Each team won twice in their regular season series. Here is how I see them matching up:
Flyers: What more can be said about Mike Richards and Danny Briere? Both players have carried the bulk of the Flyers’ load in the playoffs, combining for 34 points in 24 playoff games. Richards was the Flyers’ sacrificial lamb in matching up against Zdeno Chara and the Bruins last round yet he still managed to post three goals and four assists in the seven games. Richards sacrifice opened other opportunities for Simon Gagne, Briere and Claude Giroux. Giroux picked up just one goal in the second round – compared to four in the first – but was a heavy focus in the Bruins’ scheme. The Flyers also got timely scoring from James van Riemsdyk, who scored his first career playoff goal in Game 7, Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino. They’ll need all of those players to continue with the secondary scoring in order to have a chance.
Canadiens: The bad news is that Michael Cammalleri has been a beast in the playoffs. His 12 goals (playoff best) and six assists in 14 games have his name in the mix for the Conn Smythe. The good news is that Cammalleri scored just one goal against the Flyers in the regular season. Granted, Cammalleri missed two games against the Flyers (the two the Flyers swept) because of an injury. Cammalleri has scored the game-winning goal three times for the Canadiens in these playoffs alone – where he has five multi-point games. After that, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Tomas Plekanec round out Montreal’s serious scoring threats. Grinders Travis Moen (2 goals), Maxim Lapierre (3) and Dominic Moore (3) are dangerous, unsuspecting scorers.
EDGE: Pick ‘em
Flyers: It is scary to think that Chris Pronger has almost outscored Claude Giroux in the playoffs, given how well Giroux has played – but that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Pronger’s value to the Flyers. At this point, Pronger may be gassed. He has not played less than 26 minutes in any playoff game and has played 30 or more minutes in five of 12 games. The Flyers will go as Pronger – their only player with a Stanley Cup – does. Pronger’s defense partner, Matt Carle, has been just as impressive as a plus-7 in the playoffs. Braydon Coburn has very quietly – which is a good thing for a defenseman in the playoffs – logged heavy minutes. Coburn has juggled splitting time with Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers’ No. 1 guy before Pronger, and the third defensive pairing of Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek. Parent can be a liability, but will play limited minutes, and Krajicek played his best game of the playoffs in Game 7.
Canadiens: Hal Gill, who won a Stanley Cup last year with Pittsburgh, had been Montreal’s most relied upon defenseman before P.K. Subban emerged out of nowhere at the end of the regular season. Gill has battled tough injuries in the playoffs and will still play a big role. But Subban, a 21-year-old rookie, has been the big story. He played just two games in the regular season – both against the Flyers, coincidentally – but has played more than 20 minutes per night in each of the last six games. Andrei Markov has been out with an injury. Roman Hamrlik has also played a pretty big role for Les Habs.
Flyers: To start Game 7, just his second in two months, Michael Leighton looked like the Michael Leighton that bounced around the minors for seven years before landing with the Flyers in December. Boston’s three quick goals, at least two of them being soft goals, almost crippled the Flyers. As the game went on, Leighton looked more like the Michael Leighton who was the savior of the Flyers’ season with a 16-5-1 record when they were in 14th place in the Eastern Conference.
Canadiens: Jaroslav Halak is one of the main reasons Montreal is still alive, having survived two Game 7s in back-to-back series. Halak sent Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby packing for the summer in two straight series, which would be an incredible feat for just about anyone. Halak is rolling with an incredible .933 save percentage (playoff best) and a 2.42 goals against average. Still, Halak has had his vulnerable moments – he has allowed five or more goals four times in the playoffs, albeit to offenses much stronger than the Flyers.
Flyers: Peter Laviolette has proved himself among the best in-game tacticians in the NHL. It was no fluke that Laviolette won the Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes – he has an ability to make adjustments during the course of the game that few do. His players have bought into his system and it seems like he knows the right time to push the right buttons. Most coaches would have hit the panic button after being down 3-0 in a series and down 3-0 in Game 7. The Flyers did not budge.
Canadiens: Jacques Martin has coached more than 1,180 regular season games – more than double Laviolette – but has never reached the Stanley Cup Finals in nine career playoff runs. In fact, this is just Martin’s second trip to the Conference Finals in his career. Martin left his post as the general manager of the Florida Panthers last summer to take the reins as Montreal’s coach. Despite finishing fourth in the Northeast division this year, the Canadiens are just eight wins away from their 25th Stanley Cup.
Flyers: The Flyers’ penalty killing in the second round was less than stellar, successfully killing off just 18-of-23 (78-percent) Bruins power play opportunities. They were snookered in Game 7, allowing the first goal of the game just 8 seconds after Scott Hartnell entered the box with a high-sticking penalty. Still, the Flyers did a much better job of staying disciplined in the second round compared with the first, when they were penalized 32 times in just five games. The power play was not much better. The Flyers went more than three games without a power play goal and were just 5-for-31 (16-percent) in the second round.
Canadiens: Montreal was one of just two teams with a better power play than the Flyers in the regular season, though they were just two-fifths of a percentage point better. Their power play was the difference in Game 7 against Pittsburgh, scoring twice on four tries. Overall, it is 11-for-51 in the playoffs, just a shade off their regular season mark. Montreal’s penalty killing was vulnerable in the second round. In Game 1, they surrendered a goal on each of the Penguins’ four power plays. It allowed one goal in Games 3, 4, 5, and 6 before shutting out Pittsburgh in Game 7.
Flyers: It will be interesting to see how the short turnaround between Game 7 and Game 1 will impact the Flyers. Then again, the long layoff they had between Rounds 1 and 2 did not help. A quick start allows the Flyers, who may be beat up and dragging at this point, to start the series with momentum and play on adrenaline. That can’t last the whole series, though. Mentally, this team has all of the intangibles necessary to win a Stanley Cup. The comeback of all comebacks on Friday night was a testament to the wherewithal in their locker room. At this point, I really do believe no obstacle is too big for this team to overcome. The Flyers have this “destiny” feel about them and, now, a whole city behind them.
Canadiens: I do not think anyone can underestimate the pressure the Canadiens are under to win a Stanley Cup. No Canadian team has done it since they beat the Gretzkys back in 1993. They are the Yankees of hockey, without all the spending. They have won the Cup 24 times. There have regularly been riots on the great streets of Montreal after almost every playoff game. The Bell Centre is the mecca of hockey. Almost everyone in town counted out the eighth-seeded Habs before the playoffs. Now they believe. And now, that miracle run, could soon crack under the enormous pressure.
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