PHILADELPHIA -- They’ve been there and done that so they figure they can do it again.
That’s the approach the Canadiens are taking to their do-or-die Game 5 in Philadelphia, which is about the only one that makes sense right now. Of course there is some logic to it because Montreal has won the five previous elimination games it has played so far in these playoffs too.
“Basically when you're put in this situation, it's really one shift, one period,” said Canadiens center Scott Gomez echoing the team’s party line. “I mean, you can't even look too far ahead, just take the challenges set in front of us.
“We've had our backs against the wall a lot this year, and we've found a way, so why not again?”
Fair question except that the Canadiens haven’t run up against anyone like the Flyers either.
Truth is Philadelphia is the toughest team Montreal has faced to this point, which may seem strange considering the Habs have beaten the Presidents’ Trophy winners from Washington and the defending Stanley Cup champs from Pittsburgh to get here and the Flyers needed a shootout win on the season’s final day just to qualify for the playoffs. But while the Capitals and Penguins were very good teams, the reality is that neither was as balanced and more important as good defensively as the Flyers are right now.
Those factors have been the difference in the series, and what should be the difference in Game 5. Besides Philadelphia has gotten much better goaltending than either the Capitals of Penguins did, with playoff feel good story Michael Leighton stealing the thunder from Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak so far.
Halak, of course, was the biggest reason the Canadiens won their first two rounds and while he hasn’t been bad in this series, he hasn’t been nearly as sharp as he was earlier. More important, Montreal hasn’t been able to score in three of the four games against Leighton, who came up big in Philadelphia when his team got off to slow starts and benefitted from a smothering defensive display from the skaters in front of him in Game 4.
And that fourth game, which put the Flyers in position to lock up a date at home with the Chicago Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup, was arguably the most telling thing about what separates Philadelphia and Montreal right now.
The Canadiens arrived in town talking predictably about the things they have to do to stay alive. You know the drill: Be more desperate, move their feet, use their speed, create more traffic in front of Leighton and direct more shots on goal.
“We just have to battle,” said Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik.
Of course they do. But that’s easier that done when going up a big, tough, physical and surprisingly disciplined defense that is headed up by Chris Pronger, who is having a monster series and spending about half of every game on the ice.
Pronger is in a zone now, and so is his partner Matt Carle, along with the Flyers other top four tandem, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn. They are doing a monumental job of keeping the Canadiens to the outside and minimizing good scoring chances, and blocking shots when they don’t. And while Philadelphia is getting important offensive contributions from key players like Danny Briere, Simon Gagne and Mike Richards, secondary types like Claude Giroux and Ville Leino have been kicking things up a notch as well.
That’s another big difference between the two teams right now as well.
But more than anything, Philadelphia looked like it got a wakeup call from its embarrassing loss in Game 3. Coach Peter Laviolette had expressed concern about his team being lackadaisical at times during its two wins at home and was livid after Game 3, and apparently his message got across.
So Philadelphia looks to be in good shape coming home with momentum the majority of best moments on its side. But they also realize the Canadiens have come back from the brink, just as the Flyers did when they trailed Boston 3-0 in the previous round.
“We can't take them lightly,” Pronger said. “They're obviously a team that has come out very well against when their backs have been against the wall; and we expect nothing less from them.”