The last time the Flyers and Canadiens met in a playoff series was 2010. It was the Conference Finals – and a rather bizarre one at that. The Flyers were the seventh seed out of the East – yet had home ice advantage, as the the Canadiens were the eighth seed. The Flyers would go on to win and face the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final.
There are vast similarities between that Canadiens team and the one facing the Flyers here in 2020. Yet, it is highly likely this Canadiens team and their attempt at a Cinderella run will end with a smashed pumpkin carriage rather quickly.
How Did They Get Here?
The Flyers were an impressive 4-0 during round-robin play and guaranteed themselves the number one seed in the East. They are playing the same style and system consistently that led to a dominant regular season. Carter Hart has looked excellent and all four lines have been firing on all cylinders.
The Canadiens were equally impressive against the Penguins in the qualifying round. Montreal found a way to shut down Crosby and crew with regularity. This was more than surprising, considering Montreal was rumored to not want to play at all. The Canadiens were sellers at the trade deadline and had essentially packed it in back in March. They had sent one of their young potential stars to the American Hockey League and were hoping for a crack at a top-five pick. Carey Price and other veterans looked weary throughout the season, but it appeared the time away was beneficial for them. The Canadiens beat the Penguins decisively. The “potential young star” that was sent to the AHL, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, scored twice against the Penguins and looked great throughout.
Yet, this Canadiens team has vast roster inconsistencies and lacks overall depth. However, if there is anything the playoffs have shown us again this season – and historically – it’s this: a team buying into a strong system and a hot goalie can win you a series. It’s easy to look on paper and see just how lacking this Canadiens’ roster is. To fully count them out, however, would be a travesty.
Even though the Canadiens had the lowest points of any qualifying teams in the East, they still have some overall positives.
1. Carey Price
It feels somewhat strange for me to write this considering the type of seasons Price has had lately. His play has been inconsistent and riddled with injuries. Yet, if there is a player that can turn a series alone, it’s Price. This was evident during Montreal’s series against the Penguins, where he boasted a .947 save percentage. Price looks to have found some youthful exuberance, and the Canadiens will go as he does in this series. If he remains hot, look out.
2. Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, and Ben Chariot
Heading into the series against the Penguins, I would have suggested the Canadiens had a porous blue-line that lacked depth and both offensive and defensive abilities. So far, the Canadiens have proved that wrong. The aging Shea Weber looked dominant during the series and showed he still has gas in the tank. Weber is a physical, two-way defender who can haunt opposing forwards. Weber did that in the Pens’ series and is likely to do so again.
Petry is one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL. He has solid underlying numbers and can shut down opposing forwards and add a level of offense. He too was solid against the Pens and all season long. Chariot is more of an old-school shutdown defender that has been forced to play up the lineup a bit on a Canadiens’ defense lacking depth. He looked excellent against the Pens’ in round one and plays a solid shutdown style the works well in the playoffs. If these three players are relatively injury-free, they could cause the Flyers’ forwards some difficulty.
3. Claude Julien’s Coaching
Canadiens’ head coach Claude Julien is a tactician and legendary for his systems of high puck possession yet stingy defense. He won a Cup as the coach of the Bruins and was largely responsible for their success. When players fully buy into Julien’s system, his teams are extremely difficult to play against. Julien had full buy-in against the Pens. If he does again in round two, the Canadiens could be a force to be reckoned with.
4. Sleeping Giants
The Canadiens had strong performance upfront from their young forwards in the qualifying round. Rookie Nick Suzuki and second-year forward Kotkaniemi had a solid series. Yet, the players considered to be the best Canadiens’ forwards were relatively quiet in round one. Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi, and Jonathan Drouin all were barely on the scoresheet. Domi and Drouin, in particular, have game-breaking ability when they are at their best. if this group of forwards can get rolling offensively, they could cause some problems for the Flyers.
In stark contrast to the up-and-down play of the Canadiens, the Flyers have been consistently good this season and have continued their run for a number of reasons in the postseason.
1. Relentless Forecheck
The Flyers’ system allows for an aggressive, continuous system of puck pressure. The Canadiens’ defense struggles to move the puck up the ice quickly at times, and it is likely to slow down even more with the Flyers’ puck-pressure.
2. Mobile Defense
One of the reasons for the Flyers’ dominance in the round-robin was their mobile defense. The Flyers’ top four all have strong puck-movers, and they can jump into the play with ease. Sanheim, Provorov, Myers, and Ghostisbehere (if he plays) all add offense to an already deep offensive team. The Flyers use their defense to exploit the defensive structures of other teams.
3. Overall Roster Depth
The Flyers boast excellent overall depth throughout their roster. Oscar Lindblom may also be available during this series, even though the transition from him being out as a top-nine forward has been rather seamless for the team. If and when injuries occur, the Flyers are built for the long run and are easily deeper than the Canadiens’ squad. The Flyers also haven’t needed Claude Giroux to be a superstar. Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and Scott Laughton are just a handful of players who have stepped up big time and have taken pressure off the Flyers’ big guns.
Players to Watch
Suzuki is a highly-skilled forward who excelled in the OHL over the past few seasons. He has excellent hands and vision. Suzuki stood out consistently against the Pens and is a player to keep an eye on during the series.
Drouin is an electrifying player when he is at the height of his game. Not many players have his puck-control ability. Drouin has had consistency issues, but if he gets rolling, he could easily be the best Canadiens forward in this series.
Weber has been forgotten by many after a trade from Nashville to Montreal a few seasons ago. When healthy, Weber is a physically dominant defender who can stifle opposing forwards with his strong positional play. He also boasts an over 100 MPH slap shot. Weber can still be a force and, if healthy, could cause problems for Flyers’ forwards.
While the Canadiens have some pieces and even have some strong possession numbers, their roster lacks the goal-scoring talent necessary to turn their possession into high danger scoring chances consistently. They are a relatively opportunistic scoring bunch. Carey Price could get hot and cause some problems.
The Flyers, on the other hand, are a deep team with high puck possession numbers, are dominant on all special teams, and can roll four lines with consistency. Carter Hart had a .966 save percentage in the round-robin, and the Canadiens’ style of play is unlikely to necessitate a need for him to stand on his head. Yes, the Canadiens knocked off the Penguins, but this season the Flyers are the superior team across the board.
My prediction: Flyers in 5