Sunday, May 16, 2010

Eastern Conference Final preview

#7 Philadelphia vs. #8 Montreal

How they got here: The Flyers plowed through second-seeded New Jersey in just five games, leaving enough energy to earn a historic comeback over Boston, trailing 3-0 in the series before winning it in seven games. Montreal earned seven-game victories over Washington and Pittsburgh.

Regular season head-to-head: Montreal won the first game, 3-1, in a game in which both teams set a franchise-record low for shots on goal and combined shots in one game. Let's just move on. Philadelphia won the second game, 3-2, behind two Jeff Carter goals. The third meeting featured a hat trick by Daniel Briere in a 6-2 Flyers victory. Lastly, Jaroslav Halak stopped 35 shots in a 1-0 Montreal victory to close the season series.

Key performers (Philadelphia): Mike Richards (5 goals, 12 assists, 17 points); Briere (7-8-15); Chris Pronger (4-7-11, 34 blocks); Claude Giroux (5-6-11); Simon Gagne (4-3-7 in 8 games, including two GWG against Boston); Michael Leighton (2-0, 1.54 GAA, .943% in a return to action following Brian Boucher's injury)

Key performers (Montreal): Mike Cammalleri (12 goals, 6 assists, 18 points); Brian Gionta (7-5-12); Scott Gomez (1-10-11); Tomas Plekanec (4-7-11); Hal Gill (54 blocks); Josh Gorges (44 blocks); Halak (8-5, 2.42, .933%)

Why it's surprising Philadelphia is here: The Flyers were the last team to qualify for the postseason, needing a shootout win in Game 82 over the Rangers to clinch a spot. They had to face one of the top goalies in the game's history and one of the supposed best teams in hockey in the first round. They became just the third team in NHL history, and fourth team in American major sports, to win a series after being down 3-0, including trailing 3-0 in Game 7. They also pulled off the second-round comeback without its top offensive player in Jeff Carter.

Why it's not surprising Philadelphia is here: The Flyers should have been higher than just the seventh seed. A preseason pick to contend for a Stanley Cup, Philadelphia was haunted by injuries, big-time underperformers and poor coaching, among other things. When healthy, this team boasts talent a lot of other teams don't have. Also, the Bruins suck, and lost that series after losing Game 5.

Why it's surprising Montreal is here: Oh, I dunno. Something about beating the Presidents' Trophy winners after being down 3-1 in the series, then knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champions after trailing the series 3-2. Other than that, I don't see why anyone's surprised the Canadiens are here. Except for "Where was THIS in the regular season?" -type questions.

Why it's not surprising Montreal is here: Halak is channeling the 2003 version of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, when the Ducks goalie won the Conn Smythe Trophy despite coming up short in the Stanley Cup Final. His team is helping him out by playing tremendous team defense, clogging shooting lanes, blocking shots and clearing rebounds. Luck has played a fairly large part in the postseason too. Montreal's star power is shining brightly on offense and the players capitalize on whatever mistakes the opponent makes.

Why Philadelphia can win: The Flyers can ride the momentum of their historic 3-0 comeback. Briere is playing some of his finest hockey as a Flyer. Their defense isn't playing at quite the level of Montreal's but it's certainly better than Pittsburgh's. Gagne's return has been a huge boost. Philadelphia boasts more players to keep an eye on than the Penguins had.

Why Philadelphia can't win: The Flyers have home-ice advantage. Seriously, we've seen how well that's worked out in the East. Both Briere and Gagne are a sneeze away from getting injured again. Boston had very few offensive threats, so the Flyers defense might not be used to actually playing it. And is Leighton really a goalie who can get his team to the Stanley Cup Final?

Why Montreal can win: If the Canadiens play the same way they did in the first two rounds. Halak must continue to be the second-coming of Ken Dryden, the defense must continue to be self-sacrificing, and Lady Luck has to remain on their side. Montreal could be boosted by the return of Andrei Markov, though his absence didn't mean much last round. The Canadiens pretty much had a 100 percent rate of turning mistakes and turnovers into goals against Pittsburgh. Montreal's special teams have been very good.

Why Montreal can't win: Unlike the Penguins defensemen, Philadelphia's blue liners will keep an eye on Cammalleri, who torched Pittsburgh. The Canadiens luck, and Halak's run, has to end sometime. Is their passive-aggressive approach to offense really going to see them through a third round?

Who will win: Quite a few Canadiens are playing at the top of their game right now, from veterans like Gomez and Cammalleri to wet-behind-the-ears rookies like PK Subban. Given a choice between Halak or Leighton, give me the Slovak. Montreal in seven. Maybe the Flyers can find a way to blow a 3-0 series lead. That's about the last thing the Canadiens need to do in the playoffs.

(Game 1 prediction: Montreal 4, Philadelphia 1.)

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