I’ve already underestimated the Canadiens twice this postseason. I suppose it conventional wisdom would be to learn from your mistakes and pick the team that has just knocked off the President Trophy winners and defending Stanley Cup champs in back to back series. Initially, I was going to pick the Habs. Halak is a huge difference maker and if they could shut down Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin, is it really smart to bet that a team that barely made the playoffs is going to have any better luck? But when you look at the type of game that Philly plays, and the momentum they have coming off a historic comeback, and combine it with the pure hatred I feel for the bleu, blanc et rouge, picking the Flyers started to make a little more sense.
Offense:Mike Cammalleri is currently leading all playoff goal scorers with 12 goals so far, and aside from Halak, is the biggest reason the Habs are still alive and kickin. Scott Gomez has 10 assists, and Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta both have 11 points so far. For Philly, Mike Richards has been the leader all over the ice. He kills penalties, scores timely goals and is really the glue that has kept this team together over the last two series. With 17 points, he leads the club. Against Boston though, a guy who may have been even more important than Richards was Simon Gagne. He missed the first three games, and returned for Game 4 after having surgery on his big toe, scored the winning goal in OT and helped spark a 4 game win streak. With Jeff Carter out, Danny Briere has seen some duties down the middle, and has been on fire, with 15 points in 12 games so far. Claude Giroux and Ville Leino are both averaging almost a point per game this postseason, as well.
Defense: Montreal’s success has a lot to do with the solid play they’ve gotten from their veteran blueliners. Shot blocking, clearing the front of the net and solid play in the defensive zone are all things that the Habs have done extraordinarily well so far, and they’ll need to keep that up. Hal Gill has been the epitome of a shutdown defender, matching up with some of the most talented scorers in the league and coming out on top. However, Montreal will again be without the services of Andrei Markov, as he was injured against Pittsburgh and will not be available for the Conference Finals. For Philadelphia, their defensive fortunes also center on a big strong shutdown defender, as Chris Pronger has been one of the most important pieces in their success. With 11 points, he contributes offensively, and his size and penchant for physical play make him more than a handful for opposing forwards. The small speedy forwards that Montreal has will have their work cut out for them dealing with Pronger. Matt Carle leads the team with a +7 rating, and the 2nd pairing of Brayden Coburn and Kimmo Timonen has been solid as well.
Goaltending: Obviously, with the current favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy in net for the Canadiens, they definitely have an edge in goal. Jaroslav Halak has been nothing short of brilliant, shutting down the two most dangerous offenses in the East already. The Flyers were riding a hot goalie of their own until Brian Boucher went down with a knee injury. Normally that would be cause for serious concern, but in his place, Michael Leighton, fresh off injured reserve, stepped in and turned in 3 great performances against the Bruins. Leighton was great for the Flyers in the regular season, and as he continues to get back up to game speed, there seems to be no indication to think he’ll be anything but solid in this series.
Special Teams: With Pittsburgh eliminated, the Flyers’ 13 powerplay goals so far in the postseason stands as the most scored by any remaining team. Both teams have been great on the penalty kill, allowing just 9 powerplay goals each. The Habs haven’t had as much success on the powerplay as they did in the regular season, and without Markov, they will most likely continue to struggle against an aggressive Philly penalty kill.
Just like in the last two series, on paper, the Canadiens should end up as spectators at the end of this series. What makes me think Philly will do a better job against them than Pitt or Washington is the hard-hitting aggressive style they play. The Flyers do a great job of hemming opposing teams in their own end and getting consistent traffic in front of the net. If they can do that this series, they should be able to succeed where better teams have been unable to.
My Pick: Flyers in 6