East finals preview: Flyers-Habs
The Eastern Conference finals set up as a compelling clash of two teams with an eye on destiny.
You want magic?
How about the Philadelphia Flyers becoming just the third team in NHL history to erase a 3-0 series deficit and win? The Flyers not only won four straight against the shell-shocked Bruins, but they also spotted Boston a 3-0 first-period lead in Game 7 before roaring back to win 4-3.
Or the eighth-seeded Canadiens posting two straight upsets? They spotted the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals a 3-1 series lead before stealing Game 7 in Washington and then won the final two games against defending champion Pittsburgh to reach their first conference finals since 1993.
Philly and Montreal are dealing with injuries to top players with Jeff Carter (Flyers) and Andrei Markov (Habs) both out. But both teams have shown remarkable resilience and neither has much in the way of quit in it.
1. Tired?: What will these two teams have in the tank for the conference finals? The Habs have played more games this spring than any other team (14) and are 5-0 in elimination games so far. The Flyers are coming off a comeback of historic proportions and are 4-0 in elimination games, all four in succession against the Bruins.
The Canadiens will have been off since Wednesday night, which should give them time to recuperate from their arduous first two rounds. The Flyers? Not so much. They'll have less than 48 hours before they'll be expected to ramp it up for Game 1 at Wachovia Center on Sunday night. At some point, you wonder whether the physical and emotional toll will catch up to one, or both, of these teams. Right now, we're guessing the bigger challenge will be for the Flyers to get back into a groove after the Boston series.
2. Like water off a Halak's back: We used this to reference Jaroslav Halak's unflappable nature earlier in the playoffs, and we were so darned pleased with ourselves, we reprised it here. But it may just be the key to the Habs' Stanley Cup hopes, even if Halak hits a minor wobble, as he did in Game 1 against Pittsburgh when he was lifted after allowing five goals on 20 shots. But what did he do after that outing? He went 4-2 and gave up 11 goals. His personality has been key to the Canadiens' ability to constantly stay in the moment and not start the slide most have expected at some point from the No. 8 seed.
3. Mike Cammalleri, MVP?: If voting for the Conn Smythe Trophy took place now, many would give the nod to Halak; but Mike Cammalleri, goal machine, would have to be near the top of the list. His seven goals in the second round tied a franchise record for the most in one series. He has a shot at the Habs' all-time record for goals in a playoff year (he has 12 in 14 games). And for a team that doesn't boast all that much offensive depth, Cammalleri's performance has been dominant. He has consistently put the Habs on the board early in games and chipped in three game-winning goals. Unless the Flyers can find a way to keep him from unleashing his lightning-quick shot from the slot or the circles, they are going to find out just how real Cammalleri and the Habs are.
4. The Pronger factor: Remember back at the Olympics in February when people said Chris Pronger was too old and too slow? He does. He files all that stuff away. And the Flyers defenseman is not looking all that old or slow even though he is 35 years old. Heading into Game 7 against Boston, Pronger led all NHLers in the playoffs, averaging 29:39 in ice time. He also led all players in Game 7 (26:12).
Beyond that, Pronger has shown this spring why GM Paul Holmgren sold off a bunch of futures to bring the big defenseman to Philadelphia. He not only logs a ton of ice time and plays against the other team's top players, but he's also added key offensive contributions. He has 11 points in 12 postseason games.
Look at Pronger's track record since the lockout: Stanley Cup finals in 2006 with Edmonton (many still believe he should have been playoff MVP), Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007 and an upset over Presidents' Trophy winner San Jose in the first round with Anaheim in 2009. In short, he's a winner, and the Habs better get used to that.
5. Special, so special: The Canadiens' power play has been hitting at about the same level of efficiency as the Flyers', but it was Montreal's penalty kill that was so important in the first round against Washington (it held the league's best regular-season power-play squad to just one goal in 33 attempts).
The Flyers, meanwhile, were ranked third in the playoffs on the penalty kill heading into Game 7 on Friday against Boston. Although they gave up two early power-play markers to the B's, the bottom line is each team will be looking to take the other out of its penalty-kill comfort zone.
• Michael Leighton versus Halak: Hey, we know goalies don't directly play against each other, but that's not going to stop us from pointing out that Leighton versus Halak looks like a huge mismatch. Leighton has played in exactly three postseason games and didn't look all that strong early on in Game 7 against Boston. He faced only five shots in the final period and allowed three goals on 25 shots. We're going out on a limb here in saying if the Canadiens get up 3-0 against Philly, they won't be going home a loser. Leighton is going to have to play at least as well as Halak if the Flyers are going to have a shot in this series. During the regular season before he got injured, Leighton showed he could string together consistent starts. He'd better find that consistency now.
• Canadiens: Happy birthday to P.K. Subban, aka Little Bird, who turned 21 on Thursday and will once again be counted on to play a significant role for the Canadiens' blue line against Philadelphia. Subban has been averaging 20:06 a night, kills penalties and works the power play. He pretty much does it all. Not bad for a kid who was playing in the AHL before Game 6 of the first round. Tomas Plekanec started the playoffs on fire, but has not scored in his past eight postseason games.
• Flyers: Daniel Briere, Simon Gagne and Mike Richards are all riding four-game point streaks heading into Game 1 of the East finals. Daniel Carcillo, the darling of the first round (two goals including an overtime winner against New Jersey), had zero goals in seven games against Boston.
• Why bust a trend that has been so successful? We picked the Habs to lose in the first two rounds, and we're going for the triple, picking No. 7 Philadelphia in what would be a strange upset given that Montreal is the eighth seed. Flyers in six.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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