If we only knew then what we know now

PHILADELPHIA -- The playoffs can be a humbling experience.

Ask Alex Ovechkin or Ryan Miller or Ilya Kovalchuk.

Ask any of the Boston Bruins or the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The things that seem a certainty based on even the most cursory knowledge of the game sometimes end up in a great puff of smoke.

We recall flying to Washington after the Capitals had crushed the Montreal Canadiens 6-3 at home to take a 3-1 series lead. We recall making plans to head home, to do things around the house. Assuming we understood what was going to happen, we were looking forward to when the two teams gathered at the Verizon Center for Game 5.

Maybe the Capitals were guilty of that, too.

Regardless, it didn't work out that way at all.

The Habs won Game 5 behind Jaroslav Halak's 37-save performance and then won two more games to advance.

We recall sitting at home watching Game 7 of the Boston/Philadelphia series in the second round. Halfway through the first period, we started writing a preview of the Eastern Conference finals matchup between Montreal and Boston. With a 3-0 lead, we knew the Bruins were going to prevail and not become the butt of endless jokes. The problem was, the Flyers didn't get the memo and roared back with four unanswered goals to advance.

All of this was brought into sharper focus after Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, when the Flyers played a nearly perfect road game Saturday afternoon and blanked the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 to take a 3-1 series lead into Monday's potential clincher at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.

As journalists filed through the Montreal airport Sunday, there was one theme that dominated discussion: The Habs are done, aren't they?

What's that old saying? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me?

In other words, we have no idea what will transpire Monday night. But just in case this is the end of the line for Montreal, it would be a shame to let the moment pass without offering up a mea culpa or two.

We're not looking for absolution or to ease the burden on the soul, but these playoffs have been a sharp reminder of how often what we think we know to be true and what actually turns out to be true do not exist in the same place.

Take Jacques Martin.

We wrote earlier this spring that perhaps his rather android-like personality might have had something to do with the penchant his teams historically had for underachieving in the playoffs. We noted how he had regularly been outcoached by Pat Quinn when Quinn's generally under-talented Toronto Maple Leafs regularly got the better of Martin when he was coaching the Ottawa Senators.

Yet this spring, Martin has shown he is more than the sum of the thousand monotone clich├ęs delivered in news conferences these many years. He has been adept at adjusting his lineup to try to correct problems on the ice. He has been quick to shorten his bench even though there are risks involved in doing so. Mike Cammalleri said sometimes older coaches are more likely to stay with the tried and true. Not Martin.

"I think he's been good. I've got nothing but good things to say about Jacques," Cammalleri said earlier this week. "I would say that he's probably adapted a little bit more than people expect. Sometimes [with] experienced coaches, you usually find that they're pretty set in their ways, and I think Jacques has been very open-minded as far as adapting ideas and things that might work. We've made lots of adjustments as things have gone on."

It's still annoying when Martin stops in the middle of an answer as if he can't be bothered to give up any more, but when you've coaxed your eighth-seeded team to this point of the playoffs, it does seem a bit petty to criticize him just because he's not filling our notebooks.

The other day, Martin was talking about his team and he praised former GM Bob Gainey for the insight he's provided during the postseason. It made us think of the day Gainey stepped down this season and handed the reins of the team over to good friend and colleague Pierre Gauthier.

We had observed there wasn't a classier man than Gainey, who had ridden herd on a team in a pressure-charged city through a tumultuous time in his personal life. The bottom line, we concluded, was Gainey wasn't a particularly good GM. At the time, it seemed a fair comment. The Habs were drifting around at the bottom end of the Eastern Conference standings, looking on most nights like a non-playoff team more than one that could still be playing in the last week of May, with players signed to long-term deals that seemed to hold the team back for years.

But this team bears Gainey's imprint; if we could criticize him for its failings earlier, it seems only right to praise him for the team's surprising successes this spring.

Fans might have questioned the offseason signing of lumbering Hal Gill to a two-year deal worth $2.25 million annually, but he has been a rock for the Canadiens. Likewise, it seemed like a lot to give Jaroslav Spacek a shade over $3.38 million a year for three years, but Gainey knew what he wanted for his blue line, and Spacek has been an important contributor in negating some of the most dynamic offensive forces in the league through the first two-plus rounds.

Up front, the knock on Montreal was it was too small. Cammalleri was a talent and seemed a logical fit when the Habs signed him July 1. But to add Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez seemed ill-advised. Yet earlier this week, Martin praised those former Cup winners as being among the keys to the Canadiens' ability to soldier on through significant adversity.

We haven't yet had a chance to talk to Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren in this series, but we wonder if he'll remember our multiple rants about the state of the Flyers' goaltending late in the season.

When Michael Leighton went down with a high-ankle sprain shortly after the trade deadline and the Flyers were looking at starting the playoffs (if they made it at all) with journeyman Brian Boucher as the team's starter, we suggested (and we quote), "[This] has Grade-A Philadelphia Goaltending Fiasco written all over it."

How prescient.

Still, it seemed like a fair comment at the time with Leighton on the shelf and Ray Emery done for the season and the Flyers having failed to bolster their goaltending situation at the trade deadline. We know Holmgren kicked tires around the league, including inquiring about Tomas Vokoun in Florida, but refused to give up key pieces like Jeff Carter or Claude Giroux and stayed the course.

We railed that it was foolish to have surrendered draft picks and young assets to bring in Chris Pronger at last year's draft and then not have playoff-caliber goaltending. We railed that if the Flyers failed to make the playoffs -- they qualified in a shootout on the last day of the regular season -- then ownership had to take a hard look at Holmgren's role in that disappointment.

Guess Holmgren knew what he was doing after all.

Boucher certainly had his ups and downs during the regular season, but when the puck dropped on the opening series, Boucher outdueled Martin Brodeur to help the Flyers oust the Devils in five games.

Although he got hurt in the Boston series, Boucher's fingerprints are on the Flyers' run to a potential first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1997 (he had a 6-4 record, one shutout and .915 save percentage before suffering a knee injury). Leighton, whom we had also been skeptical of given he had never played in a single NHL playoff game, has merely turned in a 5-1 record with a .951 save percentage and has become the first goaltender to shut out the Habs three times in one series.

Guess we were wrong about that, too. But by now, you've figured that out.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.