Flyers show no signs of letdown
PHILADELPHIA -- Guess making history doesn't make you tired after all.
Watching the Philadelphia Flyers systematically destroy the Montreal Canadiens 6-0 in Sunday's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, one might suspect making history made the Flyers stronger and, at least on this night, seemingly invincible.
Less than 48 hours after capping a remarkable comeback against the Bruins in Boston, erasing both a 3-0 series deficit and a 3-0 hole in Game 7 to advance, the Flyers could have been excused for being a bit sluggish.
Imagine the emotional letdown after becoming just the third NHL team to affect such a comeback. Imagine the will to pull on your skates and start a fresh series.
"I think just having one day off between series, I think that was good for us," forward Blair Betts said after the Flyers posted their biggest margin of victory in a postseason game since May 1, 1980. "It didn't really give us a chance to sit back and kind of dwell on what happened last series. We just kind of put it behind us. We had a new team coming in here. A lot of reasons to be excited, and maybe a little anxious and nervous at the same time."
Despite the 6-0 rout, the Flyers almost seemed to complain they were unhappy with their first period of play. It seemed a bit nitpicky to us, but hey, if it makes them feel better, so be it.
The Habs did look like they had a little more jump for part of the opening frame, even though they gave up a goal off a scramble in front of their net to Braydon Coburn 3:55 into play. The Canadiens outshot Philadelphia 13-6 and Flyers netminder Michael Leighton was sharp, warding off several deflections en route to his first career playoff shutout.
"I had the feeling in the first period we didn't come out as well as we wanted to," said Danny Briere, who scored the second of three second-period goals for the Flyers. "You have to deal with whatever's in front of you. You can't change what's in the past. But definitely the goal was to start with a win. Like our coach said, there's only one crack at Game 1, so we made the most of it tonight."
So instead of the Flyers suffering a little historic jetlag, it was the Habs who seemed to sag as the game went along.
It was the Canadiens who looked strangely bereft of emotion after completing the second upset in their spring giant-killing regimen with a Game 7 win Thursday in Pittsburgh against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Flyers chased Montreal star netminder and playoff hero Jaroslav Halak after he allowed four goals in just 22:24 of play. It was the third time this spring Halak has been given the hook.
Mike Cammalleri, the Canadiens' offensive spark plug (not to mention the goal-scoring leader of the playoffs with 12) had one shot on net, and that didn't come until there was 7:13 left in the game.
Maybe the lack of a hugely favored opponent made it hard for the Habs to get up. Maybe they're like those adrenaline junkies who need an ever higher mountain to climb to bring their A-game.
Well, if they're looking for an uphill battle, the Habs' embarrassing Game 1 effort should provide just that missing element because they were outclassed in a way that never happened to them in the first two rounds against far weightier opponents.
"I think it's a matter of adjusting our game and raising our level of intensity," Montreal coach Jacques Martin said. "I think tonight we didn't play a team game. We played an individual game, and you can't be successful that way."
In some ways, the Flyers on Sunday resembled the Habs through most of their series against Pittsburgh. They gave up more shots, and likely a few more scoring chances when all was said and done, but they were physical and patient and took advantage of mistakes when the Canadiens made them, and that was shockingly often for a normally self-possessed Montreal team.
The Flyers scored twice on the power play against a Montreal team that had shut down the league's most potent regular-season power play (Washington) in the first round. The Flyers also held the Canadiens off the score sheet in five-on-five play, an area in which the Canadiens had dominated against the Penguins.
They did so by being patient and by crowding Halak and his replacement, Carey Price. In short, the Flyers did exactly what two vastly superior teams (on paper, at least) failed to do in the Habs' two previous series.
Leighton, who figured to be on the short end of the goaltending draw in this series given Halak's heroics in the first two rounds, was sharp and blocked a number of deflections early in the game.
"Halak's been their star for the first two rounds here," said Leighton, who came on in relief of the injured Brian Boucher in Game 5 of the Boston second-round series. "We're not changing anything. We want to do the same thing we did to [Tuukka] Rask -- get in front of him, put pucks at him and make his life miserable. That's what we did tonight."
"We lost battles, tried to make cute plays you try and make those little plays against them and they'll jam them down your throat," said Montreal defenseman Hal Gill. "We weren't good in front of the net, we didn't block shots; you could go on and on. We need more oomph. We'll learn from it, but you have to have a short memory."
This was one of the compelling unknowns about this conference finals matchup that pits a seventh seed (Philadelphia) against an eighth seed (Montreal): What was the mindset going to be? In the West, you have the top two seeds in San Jose and Chicago; both carry enormous expectations and playoff baggage, and they will go hammer and tong to get a shot at the Cup finals. Game 1 was a terrific 2-1 battle won by Chicago, and it should be the same throughout.
In the East, it's completely different. The Flyers got into the playoffs after a shootout win on the last day of the regular season. They then pulled off the remarkable comeback against Boston in the last round. Who could blame them for being satisfied?
The Habs played like a bag of hammers down the stretch and snuck into the postseason by earning a point in an overtime loss in their final regular-season game. They trailed the Presidents' Trophy winners from Washington 3-1 in the first round before posting three straight wins to advance. In the second round, they fell behind Pittsburgh 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 in the series, and still they won. What do they have left to prove?
You could call this series the "Pixie Dust Ball" given all the magic both teams have employed this spring (and we're pretty sure that's the first time pixie dust and the Flyers have ever been conjoined in a sentence). Or how about the Dreamers' Ball? But here's the thing: The journey for one of these teams is half over. On Sunday night, the Flyers showed they get it; they proved that saying you're not satisfied and proving it are two different things.
Having seen all 14 Montreal playoff games this spring, we are fully cognizant Game 1 is just that, a game. The Canadiens have become the masters of living one day at a time. So they stunk? Big deal. They stunk before, they might stink again. Tomorrow's another day.
Still, Tuesday looms as yet another night the Canadiens will have to prove they haven't started that slow slide to playoff oblivion so many have predicted so often this spring.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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