Pretty easy to tell which team was the pre-season favorite for the Stanley Cup and which was playing with house money, wasn’t it?
Let’s get one thing cleared up right away. Given the Montreal Canadiens proclivity for wildly overachieving and showing incredible resilience, it would be sheer folly to write them off after losing 6-0 in the first game of the Eastern Conference final.
But if the opening game proved anything it was this: In the first two rounds, the Canadiens played a stunning collection of superstars, but in the Eastern Conference final, they’re playing a better team.
And that may be the difference in this series. Before the season started, if anyone had suggested the Flyers would be in the conference final, that would have seemed pretty reasonable, if not expected. Had anyone suggested that they would use five goaltenders and open the conference final with Michael Leighton in the nets, well then you might have seen a few Spockian eyebrows.
Interesting, isn’t it, after all the good money the Flyers have thrown at bad goaltenders over the years, their salvation would come in the form of a career journeyman they picked up on waivers in a desperation move in December?
Of course, the Canadiens were incredibly complicit in making Leighton look like the second coming of Turk Broda. The team that had made its name in the playoffs by being aggressive and opportunistic spent the entire game taking shots from the periphery that Leighton could see coming a time zone away. Those kinds of shots on today’s bulked-up goaltenders are where pucks go to die.
Speaking of dying, the Canadiens seem intent on dying by the sword, which is odd given the their opponent. The Canadiens took far too many penalties in the game and for probably the first time since the post-season began, their best penalty-killers – Hal Gill, Josh Gorges and Jaroslav Halak – had an off night. The Canadiens played one of their most undisciplined games of these playoffs and were burned for two power-play goals on six opportunities, with another Flyers goal coming just one second after Maxim Lapierre left the penalty box.
And they got away with one when Andrei Kostitsyn high-sticked Chris Pronger and sent him to the dressing room. Usually Pronger is the one applying the lumber.
The Flyers, meanwhile, played a relatively disciplined game and were able to assert themselves physically in the Canadiens zone without taking penalties. James van Riemsdyk seems to have finally decided that he needs to go to the net to be effective and if he continues that trend, he’ll be far more dangerous than he was for the great majority of his rookie season.
What gave the Montreal Canadiens almost all of their success in the first two rounds was their incredible compete level and their goaltending and for some incomprehensible reason, it wasn’t near good enough in the first game of the most important series of the season. The Canadiens will clearly have to get far more engaged if they hope to have any chance in this series and their small and talented forwards are going to have to find a way to make it through the wall of Pronger, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle.
The Flyers found a way to knock Halak out of his groove in a big way, but the Pittsburgh Penguins thought they had done exactly the same thing in Game 1 of the first round. But if the Flyers continue to get the kind of play from their top offensive stars they got in Game 1 and if the Canadiens keep getting the limp performances from their stars they got in the first game, their magical run will come to a screeching halt.
THN Puck Panel: Can the Canadiens pull even?
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
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