Of all the opponents the Philadelphia Flyers could have expected to face in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens were perhaps the most unlikely.
The Habs entered the NHL’s return to play as the 24th seed out of 24, lucky enough to be included in an expanded field as the league looked to recoup some lost revenue after a long shutdown.
Virtually no one outside the Canadiens organization expected them to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifiers, and their four-game victory surprised many of the club’s own fans, some of whom preferred a shot at Alexis Lafreniere with the first-overall pick, which went to the New York Rangers in Monday’s draft lottery.
By the same token, the Flyers weren’t a sexy pick to earn first place in the East after entering the seeding round robin in the fourth spot. They allowed just one goal per game in their three wins, jumping up the ladder and avoiding the red-hot Carolina Hurricanes, who would’ve been their opponent had they remained in fourth.
The Flyers and Canadiens both have shrewd veteran coaches with a Jack Adams Award under their belts in Alain Vigneault and Claude Julien, and strong starting goalies. But they certainly make strange bedfellows, even in this unprecedented, bizarro world we call 2020. In fact, at the trade deadline two weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown no one saw coming, Montreal shipped gritty depth centre Nate Thompson to the Flyers, since they were well out of the playoff picture.
Scoring: Flyers Have More Weapons
In recent history, Montreal hasn’t had a reputation as a high-scoring team, but they do have depth up front and numerous players capable of stepping up with timely scoring. However, the Flyers have the edge here, in part because many of their forwards have a proven track record of creating offence with consistency and longevity. Across all situations, Philadelphia averaged 3.36 goals per game this season, while the Canadiens averaged 2.99.
Montreal’s oldest difference-makers up front are Tomas Tatar, 28, and Brendan Gallagher, 27. They were the only players to score 20 goals this season for the team. Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin are talented, but haven’t demonstrated much consistency from one year to the next (Drouin was limited by injuries to 27 games this season). Philip Danault and Paul Byron are underrated two-way players capable of big moments, while youngsters Nick Suzuki, Artturi Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi have shown promise, including big goals in the Pittsburgh series. How much the Canadiens get from those three and Joel Armia could make a real difference. Montreal has a plucky group used to grinding and working for their goals.
The Flyers have a ton of experience and scoring potential in the veteran trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and James van Riemsdyk. However, the first two combined for one point in the round robin and JVR was a healthy scratch against the Washington Capitals. Philadelphia had four 20-goal scorers in 69 games — Giroux, Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes — and van Riemsdyk scored 19.
Couturier, who’s up for the Selke Trophy for the second time, is a critical part of the nucleus in all zones and all situations. He was fourth among the team’s forwards in power-play ice time this season and was Philly’s most-used forward on the penalty kill until Thompson was acquired. Konecny and Hayes gelled on the second line, combining for 47 goals and 102 points. Scott Laughton elevated his game with those two in the round robin and youngsters Joel Farabee and Nicolas Aube-Kubel were also impressive.
Strength on Defense for Both Sides
Right shots Shea Weber and Jeff Petry are the beating heart of the Canadiens’ blue line. Weber, ironically, is still on the contract the Flyers signed him to in a 2012 offer sheet. At 34, the rugged star can still beat you with bruising physicality or his patented cannon of a shot and he’s Montreal’s best skater.
Petry, who anchors the second pairing with Brett Kulak, also plays big minutes in all situations and cracked 40 points this year. There’s not much offense from the back end beyond those two, but veteran Ben Chiarot and youngster Victor Mete are both reliable defenders. Everyone knows Montreal’s MVP resides in the crease, but their defense does a strong job in front of him.
The Flyers rely on younger players in key roles defensively, aside from last summer’s acquisitions Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun. Niskanen is a good counterweight to young star Ivan Provorov, and the pair combined for 69 points this season. But it’s the second pair of Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers who handle much of the shutdown work, and they’re dependable beyond their years with no small amount of offensive ability as well.
Braun had 600 NHL games under his belt with the Sharks before coming to Philly, and many deep playoff runs, including a trip to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. He’s capable of moving into the top four if necessary. Both Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere got looks alongside him during the round robin. Hagg’s hard-hitting game might be more suited to the playoffs, but Ghost had a strong outing Saturday against Tampa Bay.
Between the Pipes: Student vs. Master
Carter Hart wasn’t alone in choosing Carey Price as his favorite goaltender growing up. (from ‘Canadiens Notebook: Flyers goalie Carter Hart set to face boyhood idol,’ Montreal Gazette, Aug. 11, 2020) But his hard work over the years has led to this unique opportunity to face his boyhood idol in the playoffs.
Price’s reputation speaks for itself. No goalie has been drafted as high as him since the Canadiens took him fifth overall in 2005. He’s the rock their roster has been built around for the past decade. In The Athletic‘s annual player poll, Price has been the top choice to start Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final two years running. He hasn’t always had a good team in front of him, but he’s posted at least a .920 save percentage (SV%) six times and has willed the Canadiens to the second round of the playoffs twice.
His numbers have been pedestrian in two of the past three seasons, including a .909 SV% in 2019-20, but he still has that reputation for making the big save in crucial moments. This summer, it’s all about what have you done for me lately, and Price allowed just seven goals to Pittsburgh in four games, recording a .947 SV%.
Hart may be 11 years his junior, but he bested his idol’s goals against average and SV% this season and stopped 57 of 59 shots against the Bruins and Lightning. He slipped to the 48th pick in the 2016 draft in an era where teams are hesitant to draft puck-stoppers in the first round. Hart backstopped Team Canada to silver and gold medals in back-to-back years at the World Junior Hockey Championship. In 2018, he became the first player ever to win the Western Hockey League’s goalie of the year three straight seasons.
The kid has the pedigree, and last season he showed his mental toughness, too. When the Flyers recalled the 20-year-old from the AHL in December, they were dead last in the Eastern Conference and he became the sixth goalie to appear for them already. Fans worried the negative atmosphere would hurt him, but he quickly took over the starter’s role and finished with respectable numbers on a team that missed the playoffs by 16 points.
Price and Hart both have their birthdays this week. Hart turns 22 on Thursday and Price turns 33 on Sunday. Only time will tell which one gets a belated birthday present.