You’d have to go back to 2012 after the Flyers defeated their longtime rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins in a quarterfinal series, to find the most recent time that this much optimism engulfed the local hockey club. After dispatching the other three top teams in the East during round-robin play, Alain Vigneault’s squad will take on a Montreal Canadiens team that had the fewest regular-season points of any of the 24 teams allowed the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup.
From one perspective, it’s as beneficial a matchup as the Flyers could have hoped for in the first round of the playoffs. But, the Canadiens are riding high after dispatching the Penguins in four games during the qualifying round. So how do the Flyers ensure the Canadiens’ Cinderella runs ends before it truly ever begins?
Here are 3 keys for the orange and black:
That was then, this is now
The Flyers should feel confident after sweeping the Bruins, Capitals and Lightning in the round robin. But it’s important to acknowledge that there is a different level of intensity in series play as opposed to seeding games. The Canadiens have already experienced what it feels like to have a singular focus on one opponent thanks to their qualifying-round victory against the Pens.
Furthermore, you can put the Canadiens’ regular-season struggles to the side. They’re still not a great team. But in fairness, their underlying stats suggest they are better than their regular-season record indicates. More importantly, they have a Stanley Cup-winning coach Claude Julien and arguably the most reliable goaltender the game has to offer in Carey Price. That’s two significant ingredients for winning a seven-game series.
A Game 1 loss doesn't mean the Flyers have to panic. But it would change the complexion of the matchup. The Flyers cannot afford to ease into this series. They need to be ready to go at the drop of the puck Wednesday night.
Simple, smart, aggressive
The Canadiens are not built to control play. They did so at times against the Penguins, but that speaks more to Pittsburgh’s flaws than anything Montreal did over the course of four games.
Julien is more than happy to have his team play the role of counterpuncher. Expect the Canadiens to flood the neutral zone and wait for a mistake to turn into an odd-man advantage. With that in mind, the Flyers would be well-served to adopt a specific mindset in each zone.
In the defensive zone, the Flyers need to play a simple game. The Canadiens are not going to win this series by cycling Ivan Provorov and the other Flyers blueliners to exhaustion. Brendan Gallagher and company are looking to create turnovers and turn them into quick-strike goals. Artturi Lehkonen’s game-winning goal in Montreal’s 2-0 Game 4 win against the Penguins is a prime example of that. The Habs capitalized on a Brandon Tanev turnover in Pittsburgh’s defensive zone and the puck was in the back of the net in the blink of an eye. The Flyers need to manage the puck in their own zone and appreciate that the simple play, a chip off the glass or getting net-side in coverage, can be the difference between winning and losing.
The Canadiens’ forwards are not a physically-imposing group. But they have plenty of speed. Expect the Habs to clog the center of the ice and use their wheels to disrupt entries into the offensive zone. The Flyers will need a smart, disciplined approach in the neutral zone. Well-weighted chip-ins that get the Canadiens' defensemen into retreat mode with their back to the ice will be good plays in this series.
When the Flyers gain the blue line, that’s when it’s time to play with aggression. Hunt the puck and force Shea Weber and company into making quick decisions with the puck. The Flyers’ size should also allow them to win board battles. Creating turnovers means high-danger chances and that is the only way to consistently beat Price.
While most coaches abhor the thought of an offensive-zone penalty, the orange and black can afford to err on the side of being overzealous in their pursuit of scoring chances in the Canadiens’ end.
That is because the Montreal power play, to put it kindly, has not been good. After a mediocre regular season, the Canadiens went 0 for 12 in four games against the Penguins with the extra man. Numerous times, the Canadiens failed to even register a shot against the Pens’ penalty killers.
The Flyers were no better on the power play in the round robin, going 0 for 11 over three games. That said, the Flyers have been excellent on the penalty kill in the bubble, allowing just one goal in 10 opportunities.
If the Flyers can get their big names going on the power play, it’s hard to see how the Canadiens hang in the series. But if special teams is a wash and the series comes down to 5-on-5 play, the Canadiens have the goaltending to make it a coin-flip situation.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Price is the best player in this series. I would be surprised if it makes a difference.
Flyers in six.
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