A week before the season ended, neither the Philadelphia Flyers nor Montreal Canadiens were sure they'd make the playoffs. Both did -- barely -- grabbing the seventh and eighth seeds, and after a most unlikely confluence of events, they are about to meet for the right to go to the Stanley Cup Finals.
|Once again, the Habs will rely heavily on goaltender Jaroslav Halak. (Getty Images)|
For the Flyers, that involved winning a shootout on the last day of the season behind a goalie they did everything possible to avoid using. But Brian Boucher made the save he had to in the final regular-season game, and then used the adrenaline to star in Philadelphia's big opening-round upset of arch rival and Atlantic Division champion New Jersey.
Boucher got hurt in the second round against Boston, but his replacement was Michael Leighton, who ironically took the job away from him at mid-season. Leighton was actually a desperation waiver-wire pickup by the Flyers because Boucher struggled after Ray Emery was lost for the season, and he lifted Philadelphia into playoff contention before getting hurt. But he returned from a high ankle sprain just in time to take over again from Boucher, and won three games as Philadelphia made history by coming back after trailing the series 3-0.
Montreal never fell that quite that far behind in either of its first two series. But the Canadiens didn't really have things any easier. Remember this is a team that made the playoffs by one point after losing its final three games.
The Canadiens were serious underdogs coming into the playoffs, but they then disassembled the President Trophy-winning Washington Capitals after trailing the series 3-1. And if that wasn't enough, Montreal came back from a 3-2 series deficit against reigning Cup champ Pittsburgh and won its second consecutive Game 7 on the road.
But only one of these teams will turn out to be the real Cinderella. Here's a closer look:
No. 7 Philadelphia Flyers
Intangibles: We keep going back to the Chris Pronger post-lockout factor because each team he's joined since play resumed went to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season there. The streak looked destined to end several times this season, but the Flyers snuck into the playoffs and then started turning it on. They found a way to easily beat what looked like a very good Devils team and then came back to win against Boston after trailing 3-0 in the series. And Philadelphia fell behind 3-0 in Game 7, too. So maybe there really is something to the factor. Right now what's more important is the Flyers psyche, and it is pretty confident because of what they've done so far. And when a Philadelphia team is winning regardless of who it sticks in net, you know something is going right.
Assets: A physical nature is often associated with the Flyers and it applies to this group because they aren't afraid to, shall we say, make contact. But right now, the Flyers are more effective with that game because they're staying disciplined and limiting their number of penalties. Philadelphia's top four defensemen, led by Pronger, are as good as any, and the scoring is coming from several places, a good thing given the absence of top scorer Jeff Carter. Daniel Briere caught fire in the Bruins series and Mike Richards has been a standout through both rounds. Philadelphia's best asset though might be coach Peter Laviolette, hired in mid-season. He won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and seems to be pushing all the right buttons.
Player to watch: Simon Gagne came back from a broken foot and scored four goals, two of them winners, in the Flyers remarkable comeback. Philadelphia needs him to be just as effective against Montreal.
Best matchup: Richards will be given the task of dealing with Mike Cammalleri, the leading goal scorer in the playoffs and a one-man wrecking crew against Pittsburgh.
No 8. Montreal Canadiens
Intangibles: There are plenty of things that have happened to Montreal in these playoffs to evoke comparisons to 1986 and 1993. Yes, it's so last century to think about it, but the Canadiens won their last two Stanley Cups then, and both times they weren't given much of a chance when the playoffs started. Even so, those Habs teams were never quite the underdog this one was, but after coming back to win Game 7s against Washington and Pittsburgh, there is an understandable feeling of destiny in the Canadian air right now. Montreal has played well on the road because it has had to, and life is tougher at home for visitors because of the raucous crowd.
Assets: The power play hasn't been as good as in the regular season, but it has created pressure and is too good to be dismissed. Montreal has a lot of speed, it forechecks aggressively and the defense does a very good job of collapsing and blocking shots. And they have learned to be very opportunistic. Those are all factors in Montreal's success, but the biggest has been the play of goalie Jaroslav Halak, the early favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Cammalleri is close behind with his offensive exploits, and the team's energy line has managed to change the tenor of several games.
Player to watch: P.K. Subban, was in the minors until about three weeks ago, but the 20-year-old defenseman has stepped in because of injuries and shown the poise and effectiveness of a veteran.
Best matchup: Hal Gill and Josh Georges form Montreal's top shutdown pair on defense, and they did great jobs containing Alexander Ovechkin in the first round and Sidney Crosby in the second. Next up will be Briere and Gagne.
Prediction: Montreal in 7.