MONTREAL – Hal Gill clearly isn’t a believer in the old playoff adage of not providing bulletin board material for the opposition.
The towering Canadiens defenceman had plenty to say Saturday just before boarding a flight headed for Philadelphia for the start of the Eastern Conference final against the Flyers on Sunday.
“It’s easy to hate the Flyers,” said Gill, a former Pittsburgh Penguin who lived through the intense cross-state rivalry in the playoffs the last two seasons. “They’ve been the Broad Street Bullies, their fans are loud and obnoxious.
“If you’re from Philly that’s great, if you’re not you hate them. It’s fun to hate the Flyers, just like it’s fun for them to hate our fans and our team. It should be a good series as far as hate goes.”
That’s not the only reason this series should be entertaining. Above all, it’s being seen as a battle of the league’s two biggest playoff Cinderella teams.
But in the eyes of many of the Canadiens, that’s almost an injustice to the two teams meeting in this conference final that pits the seventh and eighth-seeded teams against each other for the first time since the NHL adopted the current playoff format in 1994.
The Flyers have had an extraordinary run the last three playoff years. They sit third in the NHL over that span in terms of number of playoff rounds and games, behind only the back-to-back Stanley Cup finalists Detroit Red Wings and Penguins.
“It’s probably the hottest team right now and probably the most dangerous team left in the playoffs,” Canadiens centre Scott Gomez said. “You kind of wish they got a little break there because they’re rolling right now.”
The Flyers present a unique challenge for the Canadiens, who have knocked out the league’s two best players in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in the first two rounds, along with sensational sidekicks Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Malkin.
While Philadelphia lacks the same star power as Washington and Pittsburgh, Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges says the challenge is just as great to contain the Flyers deep and dangerous group of forwards led by Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Daniel Briere.
“We’re not thinking in any way that because they don’t have Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin that it’s going to be a cakewalk,” Gorges said. “It’s going to be a very tough challenge.”
That challenge could be made tougher by the unlikelihood that all-star defenceman Andrei Markov will be in the lineup for Game 1 on Sunday night in Philadelphia. Markov, out since Game 1 of the second round with a right knee injury, practised with his teammates on Friday but was the only player not on the ice Saturday as the Canadiens had a swift, hour-long skate.
“He’s not ready to play, that’s why he didn’t skate today,” coach Jacques Martin said, denying that Markov suffered a setback by practising a day earlier. “His situation hasn’t changed. He’s out indefinitely.”
In fact, that is a change from Martin’s previous description of Markov as “day-to-day.”
Gorges said that seeing Markov at practice Friday was a lift for the team, but not seeing him Saturday wasn’t necessarily a disappointment.
“Sometimes less is more,” he said. “You’ve got to take one step back to take two steps forward. So yeah, it’s tough not seeing him out there, but if this is to get him back quicker, that’s the best thing.”
The series could come down to the contrasting make-up of the two teams.
Flyers forwards Scott Hartnell, Daniel Carcillo, Arron Asham and Darroll Powe are bruisers who finish all their hits, while the Canadiens are heavy on smaller, quicker forwards like Brian Gionta, Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Gomez.
But looks can be deceiving, Gill says.
“When Gionta came in the league, I spent two years trying to hit him before I realized I was just wasting my energy,” Gill said. “Guys like that, him and (Cammalleri) and (Plekanec), they use their size to their advantage. They’re quick and they lean on guys and it’s tough to play against those guys. I know from experience.”
Defensively, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has leaned heavily on his top-four of Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle, with each playing in excess of 24 minutes per game. The bottom two defencemen, Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent, play sparingly.
In Markov’s absence the Canadiens have spread the ice time on defence far more evenly.
“That’s something we have to focus on,” Gorges said.“If they’re all averaging that much ice time, we can’t be sitting back letting them play an easy game. Every time we can get a check onthem we have to take it, even if it’s not a big hit.”
Considering Gill’s feelings for the city, it shouldn’t be too hard to convince his Canadiens teammates to get their collective “hate” level for the Flyers high enough to execute Gorges’ plan.
“It’s a tough place to play,” Gill said. “They’re loud and obnoxious and they’re right in your ear, and their team kind of carries that same standard of being in your face and ugly and mean. That’s what makes it fun.”