Nobody could have predicted this 7-8 seed matchup in the Eastern Conference Final, but that is precisely the case as the Montreal Canadiens take on the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Eastern Conference Finals of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals was the least expected matchup of all coming into the playoffs, as the seventh seeded Philadelphia Flyers are taking on the eighth seeded Montreal Canadiens.
All that the Canadiens did to get here is knock off the top seed in the East, the Washington Capitals, and then the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, while in both cases winning Game 7 on enemy ice. While that is impressive, all that the Flyers did to get here was make the biggest playoff comeback in NHL history!
Philadelphia became the third team in NHL history to overcome an 0-3 series deficit by winning the next four games when they accomplished that feat vs. the Boston Bruins, but unlike the first two teams to do it, the Flyers had the added burden of overcoming a 3-0 first period deficit in Game 7, shutting out the Bruins the rest of the way en route to the 4-3 victory.
Now our selection for this series has a lot to do with how these teams got here, but our mindset is entirely different than most other experts. Many prognosticators are impressed with the quality of the teams that Montreal has beaten, but we have been saying all along that defense is most crucial in the NHL Playoffs.
While the teams that the Habs beat are exciting and score lots of goals, and they were obviously seeded higher than the teams the Flyers beat, the fact of the matter is that Washington and Pittsburgh were two of the weakest defensive teams in these playoffs, and for this very reason, we gave Montreal an excellent shot at knocking off Washington and we predicted their seven-game upset of Pittsburgh right here in this space.
So while others are harping on the fact that the Canadiens have knocked off two of the glamour teams in the league, we are most impressed with the fact that the Flyers have knocked of the top two defensive teams in terms of goals against in the regular season. The New Jersey Devils allowed the fewest goals in the NHL, and Philadelphia dispatched of them with ease.
But we were even more impressed with the way Philadelphia came back both in the series and especially in Game 7 vs. a Bruins team that was second in the league in GAA. Boston is not the type of team that blows 3-0 leads because of their defensive style, so the performance of the Flyers Friday night ranks right up there with one of the best we have seen all season, especially given the circumstances of what was at stake.
It is interesting to note that the Flyers four-game winning streak coincided with the return of Simon Gagne from injury, and Gagne is now fully healthy for this series. One area where Philly is not healthy is in net, where backup Michael Leighton must now shoulder the load with Brian Boucher suffering ligament damage to his knee. However, Leighton looked fine in his two and a half games vs. Boston save for that brief stretch in the first period of Game 7.
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Also, do not forget that Boucher was somewhat of a question mark entering these playoffs anyway, and many people may not realize that Leighton is now 18-5-2 this season including playoffs, with a 2.39 GAA and .920 save percentage. We feel that he is capable of carrying this team to the Cup Finals.
Now granted, Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak is also capable of winning this series by himself. However, while the teams he beat the first two rounds were both explosive, we felt going into each series that Halak was the superior netminder to the opposing goaltender. In this case, we give Halak just a slight edge over Leighton, not nearly enough for us to call Montreal with the same confidence as the first two series.
Our feeling is that Philadelphia will simply be able to score more goals in this series after being able to solve the two best defensive teams in the NHL in the first two rounds, and therein lays the key to this series.
Prediction: Flyers in five