Thursday, April 24, 2008
Flyers-Habs Round 2 Preview
Round 2 of the NHL Eastern Conference playoffs begin tonite for two teams that had to go to a Game 7 in order to meet up.
Montreal defeated a plucky Boston Bruin team in 7 games and were led by rookie goalie Carey Price, who turned aside 25 shots to lead his team. The Flyers, as we all know, had it a little tougher, going to OT, before Joffrey Lupul ended matters with his first goal of the playoffs.
At first blush, this matchup doesn't look good for the Flyers. They were swept in the season series with Montreal, losing all 4 matchups by a combined total of 15 - 6. In the games with Montreal, the Flyers just looked slow and flatfooted. The interesting thing about the losses to Montreal is that everytime the Flyers seemed to be facing the Habs, it was during a period of time when the Flyers weren't playing well. They lost twice to Montreal, back to back, during that 10 game losing streak they had in February that almost blew the Flyers' season. The first time they lost to the Habs, it was their 3rd loss in 4 games and their second loss against the Habs came after they had just blown out the Pens by a score of 8 - 2 in an emotional game. It wasn't as if the Habs saw the Flyers at their best this year.
What does that mean? I think it means this series will be closer than many of the pundits realize.
Unlike Washington, Montreal does not have that one sniper who can single-handedly carry the team like Ovechkin. Also unlike Washington, Montreal is a deep and talented team at forward. Alex Kovalev has rejuvenated his career this year and is the statistical leader of this team. Captain Saku Koivu, though oft-injured nowadays, is still the heart and soul of this team and can still play a little bit (40 assists in 77 regular season games) when he's out there. Montreal also has good young talent, featuring the flying Kostitsyn brothers, Sergei and Andrei. Both have developed nicely, with Andrei being the more prolific scorer with 26 regular season tallys. Both centers Tomas Plekanec and Christoper Higgins scored over 25 goals this year. Overall, Montreal is very, very fast at forward.
The Flyers will not hold the dominance in the center position that it did in the Washington series. Briere, Richards, and Carter are going to all have to hold their own against the center combination of Plekanec-Koivu-Higgins. In a way, not having to worry about Ovechkin may free up Mike Richards to be more aggressive offensively. Danny Briere seems immune to the boos that he will certainly receive from the Montreal faithful, and I'm sure the Flyer faithful will find someone to hate (I nominate Kovalev). For the Flyers to be successful, they will need more offense from Upshall, Lupul, and Hartnell, as power play specialist Mike Knuble will be unavailable for the beginning of this series. By the way: Riley Cote should never see the ice in this series. Slight edge: Montreal
Get to know the name Mike Komisarek. He is an American born player and he reminds me more of Scott Stevens than any other young player since Stevens left hockey. He is a shutdown d-man and Danny Briere will probably see alot of him. Montreal also has two more offensive-minded defensemen in Andrei Markov (16 goals) and Mark Streit (13 goals). Roman Hamrlik (remember him? first pick of the NHL draft about a billion years ago?) also lines up on the blueline for Montreal and it's good to see he's alive.
The Flyers are definitely at a disadvantage on the blueline, speed-wise, against Montreal. Fortunately, one of the goats from the regular season in the games against Montreal, Jim Vandermeer, no longer plays here anymore. But that doesn't mean the Flyers aren't going to have trouble with the speedy Montreal forwards when Jason Smith and Derian Hatcher are on the ice. As such, those two older, but tougher Flyers will need to punish the faster Montreal forwards when they get the chance. Especially Hatcher.
On the other side of the coin, as with Mike Richards, I think you'll see a little more offense from Kimmo Timonen, as he's not going to have to be inside of Ovechkin's jersey for 7 games in this series. Not that he won't have his hands full defensively, but the assignments cannot be compared. Someone from the blueline like Lasse Kukkonen or Randy Jones will need to play a little over their heads to make this matchup even. Edge: Montreal.
Montreal goalie Carey Price gets a lot of attention for his accomplishments at the junior level. He is much bally-hooed. However, he is still a rookie with only 41 NHL regular season games under his belt and 7 playoff games. He hasn't won a thing at the NHL level and did not play minor league hockey. He is good, but he's still young.
Martin Biron held the Flyers in during the tumultuous game 7 against Washington and broke through with his first playoff series win. He's playing his angles well and is controlling rebounds, which will be important in this series.
I'm going to go against some of the conventional wisdom and say this matchup is Even. I understand Price's pedigree, but he's not even old enough to drink yet. I understand that folks want to annoint this guy as the next Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden (two rookie Montreal goalies that led them to Stanley Cups), but I have a little more respect for history than that. He may well be the next one in that great line of Montreal goalies, I don't know. Let's see this kid do it first before we put him in the hall of fame.
Former captain of the Canadiens and current coach Guy Carbonneau is widely respected in hockey circles. He is considered one of the greatest defensive forwards to have ever played the game. In his second year as coach, his team won the Northeast division and had the best record in the conference after completely missing the playoffs last year. He is almost definitely a coach of the year candidate.
John Stevens didn't have anything close to Carbonneau's on-ice career, but as a coach, Stevens definitely has more experience when you consider his minor league success. Like Carbonneau, Stevens' team missed the playoffs last year. Unlike Carbonneau, Stevens' team almost missed the playoffs this year and if they did, he probably would have been fired. His players like him, which is good or bad, depending on how important you think such things are. Slight nod to Montreal.
Wouldn't a Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Eastern Conference final make an excellent story? Or how about Montreal's drive for another Stanley Cup? As the last Canadian team, will the officials have a say in this affair? Doesn't Montreal have some sort of kharma deficit for burning out police cars after their Game 7 win in a FIRST ROUND playoff series? I'd say this is Even.
Some are predicting either a Montreal sweep or Montreal winning in 5 games. Me? I think that Montreal will have at least one game where they make the Flyers look just plain bad and blow them out. I also think that the Flyers will have at least one game where they just punish Montreal physically. This series will be closer than some think. Unlike most, I think the Flyers can win this series if they assert their physicality and get a break here or there. However, just looking at the two teams, it's hard to pick against Montreal here, despite that I'm a huge Flyer fan and season ticket holder (see you at the game on Monday!). Montreal in Six tough games.