The Eastern Conference comes down to two teams of destiny. The Cinderella Canadiens disposed of the President Trophy winners and defending Stanley Cup Champions. The historic Flyers vanquished the best goalie ever and became the 3rd NHL team, and 4th team in NBA/NHL/MLB combined, to rally from a 3-0 series deficit to go on to win a series. After all that dust had settled, the NHL slogan of History Will Be Made is true as this is 1st time a 7 and 8 seed have met in the Conference Finals. So let’s break down this improbable matchup.
No. 7 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens
In a season of unpredictability this takes the cake, the Flyers are the lowest seed to have home-ice advantage in the Conference Finals, and the Canadiens are the first eight seed to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals under the current playoff format.
The Canadiens, as Sidney Crosby will tell you, have had an interesting style of completely being outshot but still winning. They are actually 0-3 when they outshoot an opponent and 8-3 when they are outshot. Michael Cammalleri has made an early case for the Con Smyth Trophy, as he leads the league with 12 goals, tied for the league lead with 3 GW goals, and near the top with 4 power play tallies. The 5-9 speedy winger has combined with other criticized off-season pickups Brian Gionta (12 points and 4 power play goals) and Scott Gomez (11 points, 5 power play points). Pending free agent Tomas Plekanec has followed up his great regular season (25 goals and 70 points) with a good playoff showing (4 goals and 11 points)
The Flyers lost their top regular season scorer Jeff Carter in the first round and have had a number of forwards step up their performance. Captain Mike Richards has exemplified the heart of this team and leads them with 17 points. No player has upped his game more than Daniel Briere with 7 goals and 15 points. Often the whipping boy of the Philadelphia fans for his contract, Briere has filled in as the second line center for Jeff Carter, actually winning 52.2% of his face-offs. The 32-year-old has grown his reputation of coming up big in big spots scoring 3 GW goals and adding to his 72 career playoff points in 75 games. Simon Gagne has come back strong from his toe surgery to score some big goals for the Flyers (GW goal in both Game 4 and 7), and Claude Giroux is once again showing he is a playoff ready player chipping in with 11 points and playing great two-way hockey (+3).
Both of these teams pride themselves on playing great team defense. The Canadiens have shown to the world what a block shot can mean to a team as they have blocked 320 shots this postseason. The next closest team is Boston with 196. They are led by the pair of Hal Gill (54 blocked shots) and Josh Gorges (44 blocked shots) who amazingly have shut down both Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. The storyline of players playing big when called upon is exemplified by rookie PK Subban. When top line defensemen Andrei Markov went out with a knee injury in Game 1 of the Penguins series, the recently turned 21-year-old has stepped in and played big minutes (averaging 20:20 per game), has 4 points in 9 games and a +3. Not bad for a player that had only two regular season NHL games under his belt, ironically both of those against the Flyers. All signs point to Markov returning from his injury thus creating more depth along the blue line for the Canadiens.
Depth has been prominent for the Flyers defense this postseason as they have one of the best top four left in this postseason. Chris Pronger has been as advertised playing big minutes (a league high 29:39 per game) and third in the league in defensemen scoring with 11 points. The bruising defenseman has been paired with the fleet foot Matt Carle, who is a +7, has 7 assists and 29 blocked shots this postseason. The other top pairing has underrated Kimmo Timonen, who is playing 26:59 per game, and 6-5 Bryadon Coburn, who is playing that big with 28 hits. All four of these posses a calmness with the puck, great first pass out of the zone and the innate ability to come up with a huge block shot. For all the talk of the Canadiens blocking shots the Flyers are third in the league with 194 block shots of their own.
Another part of the Canadiens puzzling strategy is playing in front of a ridiculous hot goalie. No one will argue that the Canadiens would not be where they are today with the play of Jaroslav Halak. The 25-year-old was pulled in Game 3 of the Capitals series, did not start Game 4 and then went on to save 131 of the 134 shots he faced as the Canadiens came back from 3-1 to win that series. The first time playoff goalie has had to continue to stay sharp as the Canadiens are allowing 36.0 shots per game, and he has responded with a playoff leading .933 save percentage.
The Flyers goaltending situation has been nothing but interesting. Original backup turn starter Brian Boucher was spectacular in the first round matchup vs. the Devils only allowing 8 goals in the 5 games. The 33-year-old then got knocked in Game 5 and in steps waiver wire season savior Michael Leighton, who was just activated that night off the injured list. Leighton, who was 17-9-2 after he was plucked off the Hurricanes roster, had not seen any action since a high ankle sprain sidelined him on March 16th. All the 28-year-old does is combine for a shutout in Game 5, give up only one goal in Game 6 and finish off the miracle comeback with 22 saves in Game 7. Those forces combined, have the Flyers leading the league in goals against average (2.42).
So in the Western Conference we have the probably matchup (1 vs. 2) and in the Eastern Conference we have the improbably matchup (7 vs. 8). The Canadiens have used fast starts, league high 15 goals in the first period, and good goaltending to win. The Flyers have used their relentless pressure to cause turnovers and wear down their opponents. With that in mind a longer series, as Boston realized, seems to favor the Flyers, and I have the Flyers winning this one in seven games, with that home ice for once (home teams 0-4 in Game 7 this postseason) coming in handy.