Unlike in the Western Conference where its top seed is hosting the 2nd seed, the Eastern Conference Final has the exact opposite: the conference’s 7th seed is hosting the 8th seed. This is the first such occurrence since the league adopted the 1-8 seeding system back in 1994. Neither team even clenched a postseason spot until their final games, Montreal backing in with an overtime loss while Philly sneaked with in a shootout win. The manner in which both the Philadelphia Flyers and the Montreal Canadiens have reached this stage in the playoffs is nothing short of extraordinary, but for one of these teams their magical run must come to an end at the hands of the other team.
There is much said from pundits regarding the NHL’s need of both Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin and how success for the league can be had if the two met one another in the playoffs, and it was very possible as Pittsburgh and Washington were two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference this season. However, both teams were eliminated in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal’s success in the playoffs can be attributed to the timely goaltending of Jaroslav Halak and his playoff-leading .933 save percentage and the consistent goal scoring of Mike Cammalleri, who has a playoff-leading 12 goals.
The Flyers, on the other hand, are a team that finds itself riding a giant wave of momentum. After all, they are the third team in NHL playoff history to win a series after being down 3-0 in a 7-game series. Now, injuries had a large factor in Philadelphia’s comeback; the Flyers got back Simon Gagne before Game 4 back when they were still down 3-0, while at the same time the Bruins lost David Krejci during Game 3. In the 4 games after those Gagne’s return and Krejci’s departure, the Flyers failed to score at least 4 goals only once, while the Bruins were held to 1 goal in Games 5 and 6 combined. Gagne himself had several critical goals, including the series-winning goal late in Game 7 off a Boston too-many men penalty. However, during their comeback the Flyers did lose goaltender Brian Boucher to a leg injury, one Boucher will not be able to recover from before the postseason’s end. In his place, Michael Leighton played admirably, giving up just the one goal in the game and a half he played in Games 5 and 6 and holding strong despite giving up 3 first period goals in Game 7 to help the Flyers complete the comeback.
So, both teams have done nothing but pull off upset after upset this postseason. Now, these two teams face off against one another, and there really can’t be an upset here no matter which teams is victorious.
From a statistical standpoint, both teams are about even on offense. However, Philadelphia’s defense has been the best in the postseason, letting in a league-low 2.42 goals per game. Admittedly, it was against a New Jersey team that never found its offensive groove after the Kovalchuk trade and a Boston team that was too banged up to contribute any sort of consistent offense, but with a rough ‘n tough defense led by the still dangerous Chris Pronger, they could put a stop to Montreal’s offense as well.
Meanwhile, although Montreal’s defense and goaltending has come up big, they start slow, as evidenced early on in the Washington and Pittsburgh series while Philadelphia’s defense has been more consistent despite (or perhaps because of) their goaltending situation. Montreal should have the clear edge in goaltender, though again Halak has been shown to struggle early in series before clamping down with elimination on the line. Even if they aren’t a Crosby, Malkin or Ovechkin on paper, Simon Gagne and Daniel Briere are still very dangerous threats that Montreal will need to snuff out like they did with the others if they are to have success in this series.
In the Eastern Conference, Ottawa is the only lower seed that has failed to win a series this postseason. Philadelphia was able to take advantage of a crumbling Boston team even when down 3 games to 0, while Montreal will look to continue their amazing gameplan that has shut down two exceptional teams against a team that doesn’t look as exceptional at first glance. Look for this series to become extremely good upon its first elimination game. Montreal is 5-0 in such contests, and the Flyers just won 4 of them in a row. This series will likely go seven games, and in Game 7 I must go with the road team. Montreal wins in 7 games.
Source for statistics:
ESPN, Team Statistics, ESPN.com