With center Jeff Carter returning from his foot injury and goalie Michael Leighton still pitching shutouts, the Flyers are a game away from the Stanley Cup Final. Montreal's amazing run could come to an end Monday night in Philadelphia. Whoever comes out of the Eastern Conference eventually will find the Blackhawks waiting for them after Chicago swept aside the San Jose Sharks to take the Western Conference.
We’re tantalizingly close to witnessing an old-fashioned Original Six battle for the Stanley Cup. But unless the Montreal Canadiens have some more magic in them, our nostalgia bubble is about to burst.
The Canadiens are down three games to one to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference final with Game 5 taking place Monday night (7:00 p.m. ET, Versus) at the Wachovia Center. This is getting a bit old for Montreal fans. They watched their heroes recover from the same 3-1 deficit to shock the Washington Capitals in the first round, and Montreal was down 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.
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Nobody’s panicking yet, but the Habs didn’t have to beat a hot goaltender in those two comebacks. Now they do.
All credit to Brian Boucher for bailing out the Flyers when they needed him most. But Michael Leighton has taken over, and he’s the reason Philadelphia is one win away from the Stanley Cup, blanking Montreal three times in this series. This was after Leighton (.951 save percentage in seven playoff games) came on in relief of the injured Boucher and beat the Boston Bruins three times in the Eastern semifinals to complete the rare comeback from down three games to none.
That’s one way to take the shine off Jaroslav Halak (.926 SV%). The uber-goalie from the first two rounds of the playoffs was disappointing in the first two games of the Eastern final. Halak has recovered and played well in each of the last two games, but only has a split to show for it after Montreal came up with just 17 shots on goal in Game 4. The Flyers are -180 favorites for Game 5 with a total of five goals. The 'under' is 2-2 in this series and 5-3 during their eight meetings including the regular season.
Halak can still pull Montreal’s fat out of the fire, but the Canadiens no longer enjoy the betting value they had in the first two rounds against the top two seeds in the East. They were -130 favorites in both their home games against the Flyers after playing as underdogs in each of their first 16 playoff contests.
Not only that, Philadelphia welcomed back two wounded players in Game 4: Jeff Carter (foot) and Ian Laperriere (concussion). The Flyers now have all their skaters available, while Montreal is missing defensemen Andrei Markov (knee) and Paul Mara (shoulder).
It looks like the Habs are out of gas after playing their 100th game of the season on Saturday. The longer this series goes, however, the more value the Chicago Blackhawks will have against the betting odds. The Hawks are lying in wait after taking the Western Conference crown with Sunday’s 4-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks (+144), completing the four-game sweep over the No. 1 seed.
It’s been a long time coming. Chicago last won the Stanley Cup in 1961 and last made the finals in 1992, when they lost to Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. But the Hawks were a fashionable choice to win the Cup this year – and yes, I’m talking about myself here as well as my hockey-loving colleagues, like the fine folks at Puck Prospectus. Chicago’s pure talent level has allowed the former sad-sack franchise to weather a spate of injuries on defense and some inconsistent goaltending.
Inconsistent, definitely, but super-rookie Antti Niemi (.922 SV%) has quelled those concerns with his excellent play against the Sharks, allowing just seven goals over those four games. It’s going to be nearly impossible to beat Chicago if Niemi keeps playing like that.
The Hawks were third in the league in scoring during the regular season with 3.20 goals per game; San Jose was fourth at 3.13 goals per game. Neither Philadelphia (2.83 goals) nor especially Montreal (2.56 goals) has the firepower to keep up with Chicago. But they do have goaltending.
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