Habs show how quickly series can turn
MONTREAL -- And in the blink of an eye ... a series.
After looking tired and rumpled through the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, the Montreal Canadiens emerged in a shiny new suit at home and beat the previously imperious Philadelphia Flyers 5-1 in Game 3 on Thursday night.
The Habs still trail 2-1 in the series with Game 4 set for Saturday afternoon, but this night was a dramatic lesson in just how quickly a playoff series can turn.
Just how quickly the dead can come alive.
Just how quickly the invincible can suddenly be revealed as disorganized and wanting.
Just how quickly despair can turn to hope.
"It was an old-fashioned ass-kicking," Philadelphia captain Mike Richards said. "I don't know if we thought we could throw our sticks on the ice and it was going to be easy. Give them credit. They played hard. They were all over the ice. They won every puck battle. Obviously, it shows by the score."
From the moment Game 2 ended Tuesday night with a 3-0 Philadelphia victory, the Habs talked about making adjustments, about being more disciplined and creating more traffic in front of the hitherto impenetrable Flyers netminder, Michael Leighton.
Those were honorable sentiments, but they are the comfort food of all teams that trail in the playoffs. Unless a team has the will to put those ideas into action, they are smoke in the wind.
We recall a comment made by Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma after last season's Eastern Conference finals. He said teams don't stop being good at this stage of the playoffs; but at some point, some teams just can't deliver. They are too beat up. They have given all they can give. They buckle. And that's what made Game 3 of this series so interesting because, through the first two games, the Habs looked like a team that was ready to buckle.
They were dominated on special teams. They were outscored 9-0 despite holding a healthy edge in shots on goal. They lacked the opportunism that defined their upset victories over Pittsburgh and Washington. A loss Thursday night, and their season was as good as over; the dream run as good as run dry. And faced with that prospect, the Canadiens turned in their best overall performance of the playoffs.
"It is true that [adversity] has brought out the best in this group. I guess that's a testament to the character that we have here," said Dominic Moore, who enjoyed his best game of the postseason with a goal and an assist. "But we've still got a long ways to go to claw ourselves back into this series.
"I think that style of play and that mentality is what serves us well and serves any team well. It showed tonight when we were a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more on our toes, we had a little bit more success."
Before reaching the midway point of the first period, the Canadiens scored their first goal of the series and took their first lead. It was, of course, scored by Mike Cammalleri, the winger who has so often delivered the crucial goal for the Canadiens this spring.
It was a goal -- Cammalleri's league-best 13th of the postseason -- that reflected the Canadiens' mindset on this night. They crowded the net in front of the hitherto unbeatable Leighton before P.K. Subban's point shot rebounded off the end boards to Cammalleri, who opened the scoring with a quick shot before Leighton could slide across.
"The puck jumped out from me," Cammalleri said. "Good poise by the point men, and good battles in front by my linemates and the puck just popped out to me."
To simply suggest that all it takes to win in this series is to score the first goal is to dramatically oversimplify the performance delivered by the Canadiens on Thursday night. First, Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak regained the heroic form that had been absent in Games 1 and 2. He denied James van Riemsdyk driving the net shortly after the Cammalleri goal. He then swallowed up a Claude Giroux slap shot down the right side. Soon after, Chris Pronger mishandled the puck in his own zone and Tom Pyatt put home the rebound of a Moore shot that bounced off the post and into traffic.
It was not a banner night for Pronger, who was on the ice for the first four Montreal goals and took two minor penalties. But he wasn't alone. Danny Briere and Simon Gagne, the Flyers' two hottest forwards, combined for three shots on goal. Gagne did score Philly's lone goal late in the third period with the score at 4-0; but, along with Giroux, the trio of Francophones who had been so excited at the prospect of playing here in this series came up empty.
When Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette was told how Richards had assessed the Flyers' night, he seemed to agree.
"Well, I guess, you can run with that," Laviolette said. "That's good. It's one game. That's all it is."
The coach believed Game 3 was less about the Flyers being cocky and more about the Canadiens being desperate.
"It's definitely my experience in the playoffs [that] it's never about momentum, it's always about desperation," he said. "Desperate teams are tough teams."
If desperation provides something akin to a moment of clarity, then perhaps that's what we saw from the Canadiens in Game 3. After taking a series of undisciplined penalties in Games 1 and 2 that allowed the Flyers' power play to capitalize, the Canadiens stayed clear of the penalty box and allowed just two power-play opportunities for the Flyers in the first two periods. The Flyers, meanwhile, had little answer for the Canadiens' speed and forechecking other than to hook, hold and slash. At the end of the night, the Flyers were 0-for-3 on the power play, while the Canadiens were 1-for-6.
On Saturday, the series will ratchet up another notch and another layer of urgency will be laid onto the proceedings.
Will this series take another sudden right turn as it did in Game 3, or will the Canadiens match their level of play and suddenly turn this into a best-of-three series?
We'd say we know, but the Canadiens showed Thursday the folly of assuming what path a playoff series will take.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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