MONTREAL – There is a sense of deja vu as the Montreal Canadiens get set to start their second-round NHL Eastern Conference playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
In the opening round, they faced a Boston club they had beaten 11 times in a row, including all eight meetings this season, but were extended to seven games as the hard-working Bruins gave them a much tougher test than expected.
They beat the Flyers in all their four meetings this season, outscoring them 15-6, and again will take to the Bell Centre ice as the favourites on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET).
Forward Christopher Higgins said Montreal won’t go into this one thinking it will be easy.
“It was only four games and they were so spread out,” Higgins said Wednesday as the Canadiens returned to practice after a day off. “We might have just caught them at difficult stages of the season.
“They’re a good team and they have good forwards. And with what happened the last series, I don’t think we’ll take anyone lightly from now on.”
With a good bounce or a break, the Bruins may have upset top-seeded Montreal, but the Canadiens came up with their best game of the playoffs to date in Game 7 on Monday night, a 5-0 win in which rookie goalie Carey Price recorded his second shutout of the post-season.
In that game, coach Guy Carbonneau looked to have found winning line combinations as he shifted star winger Alex Kovalev onto a line with the speedy Higgins and captain Saku Koivu, and had Kovalev’s usual centre Tomas Plekanec between brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn.
For the first time in the series, the Canadiens played a game built on speed and quick puck movement that worked so well in the regular season.
“One lesson we learned against the Bruins was that when we play our game, when we use our speed, the scoring chances are there,” said Carbonneau, who plans no lineup changes for the series opener.
“Hopefully, we’ll do that right from the start against the Flyers.”
Kovalev was the only Canadien who did not skate on Wednesday, but Carbonneau said he was just taking a rest day and will be in the lineup for Game 1.
Based on the regular season, the bigger Flyers will try to bang the Canadiens and crowd the net for goals, while Montreal will try to use their speed and skill to get behind the slower Philadelphia defence and get rubber on goaltender Martin Biron.
But the Flyers showed in their seven-game win over Washington that they can score as well, starting with their top line of Daniel Briere, Vaclav Prospal and Scott Hartnell. Briere leads all playoff scorers with 11 points, while Prospal has nine. They will miss winger Mike Knuble, who is out indefinitely with a hamstring injury.
The Bell Centre fans booed Briere every time he touched the puck this season after the Gatineau, Que., native refused an offer from the Canadiens, instead signing as a free agent with Philadelphia last summer. He had only two assists in their four meetings.
But the Boston series showed the mostly young Canadiens that things can be very different in the playoffs, when intensity picks up and everyone finishes their checks.
“In a way, it was a good lesson,” said Koivu. “Now we know what to expect and nothing’s going to surprise us.
“Just by watching Philadelphia in the first round, we know it’s going to be a physical battle and nothing will come easy.”
An advantage for Montreal is that the Flyers did not end their series until Tuesday night – a 3-2 win on Joffrey Lupul’s goal 6:06 into overtime. It will be Philadelphia’s third game in four nights, while Montreal will have had two days without a game.
Whatever jitters Price may have had about playing in the post-season look to have vanished.
After keeping reporters waiting a few minutes in the dressing room, he stepped in and said with a straight face “my leg is broken.”
He was joking, of course.
But he is expected to be the centre of attention for Flyers forwards who like to bump and distract opposing goalies.
In Game 7 against Washington, a goal was scored after a Capitals defenceman was sent crashing into his own goalie Cristobal Huet.
“Every round it gets worse,” said Price with a shrug. “The traffic is just a log jam in front of the net.
“That’s how goals are going to be scored – a lot of pushing and shoving. A lot of garbage around the net.”
Carbonneau expects that after the Philadelphia goal, the officials will have been told to be on the lookout for goaltender interference and does not expect it to be a huge problem.
What no one knows is if there will be any more trouble on Montreal streets if the Canadiens win. After ousting Boston, there was a mini-riot downtown in which several stores were vandalized and 16 police cars damaged.
“Our understanding is that it wasn’t our fans doing that,” said Higgins. “We liked the celebration.
“Other than the people who were destroying property, it was a lot of fun to be around. If they would stop that it would be better for evreybody. Be excited, but don’t destroy the city. It’s a beautiful city.”
And it also the only Canadian city left in the playoffs after Ottawa went out in four games to Pittsburgh and Calgary lost in Game 7 to San Jose.
“It means that a lot of people are going to be watching us,” Carbonneau said with a smile. “It’s unfortunate because in Canada, hockey is a religion.
“All the teams in Canada have success at the gate. They’re a big part of the NHL and it’s unfortunate that just one team will keep going. But I’m just happy it’s us.”