Flyers Can’t Take the Canadiens Lightly in the First Round

With the round-robin tournament in the rearview mirror, the Philadelphia Flyers have now turned their attention to the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After claiming the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, the Flyers are facing off against the Original Six franchise Montreal Canadiens.

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The Canadiens have been an interesting storyline throughout the NHL’s return from the coronavirus shutdown. They were a beneficiary of the qualifying-round tournament. All but officially eliminated from postseason contention months before the shutdown, Montreal was included as the final team of the 24-team layout based on points percentage to finish out the 2019-20 season.

Montreal’s 2019-20 Regular Season

The Habs ranked fifth in the Atlantic Division and 12th in the Eastern Conference standings during the regular season. Their record was 31-31-9 in 71 games. The team netted 212 goals for and allowed 221 against.

Their top four players in points were Tomas Tatar (22 goals, 39 assists in 68 games), Philip Danault (13 goals, 34 assists in 71 games), Max Domi (17 goals, 27 assists in 71 games), and Brendan Gallagher (22 goals, 21 assists in 59 games). A few other notable players on the offense include Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Nick Suzuki.

Tomas Tatar and Max Domi
Tomas Tatar and Max Domi were two of the top regular-season scorers for the Canadiens last season. (Courtesy Canadian Press)

Montreal’s top defensemen include captain Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, and Ben Chiarot. Petry likely would’ve reached a career-high in points this season had all 82 games been played. He led Canadiens defensemen in points with 40 (11 goals, 29 assists). His career-high is 46 points set in 2018-19. Weber put up solid production as well with 15 goals and 36 points in 65 games.

Between the pipes, Carey Price started 58 games this season with a 27-25 record. His backups included Cayden Primeau (son of former Flyer captain Keith Primeau) and Charlie Lindgren. Former New Jersey Devil and Columbus Blue Jacket goalie, Keith Kinkaid was brought in during the 2019 offseason to help at the backup position. He was playing in the AHL when the season was shut down.

Tale of Two Different Seasons

The Flyers and Canadiens were headed in opposite directions during the regular season. Before the Coronavirus shutdown, the Habs were trending downward. They lost three straight games, and, overall, had a poor season.

They weren’t consistent. In the month of March, the Habs played four contests and went from scoring six goals in a win versus the New York Islanders to a combined three goals in the final three games, including a shutout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens
Jonathan Drouin is one of the Habs who needs to help carry the offense. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

They were also swept by the Detroit Red Wings, the worst team in the league, in their regular-season series. In the months of November, December, January, and February, the Habs did not earn more than three wins. They just couldn’t seem to get anything going throughout the season.

The Flyers, on the other hand, became a dominant team before the NHL pause, winning nine out of their last ten games. In that time, they faced the Columbus Blue Jackets twice, the Washington Capitals, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Winnipeg Jets among others. Their offense had powered the squad to victory on countless occasions during the season, sometimes chalking up six or even seven goals in a game.

Some wondered if the Flyers could continue their hot streak into the qualifying round. During the round-robin tournament, they showed that they’re still one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.

Their bottom-six forwards helped defeat three of the best Eastern teams and claim the top seed. With their top talent unable to score, a new player stepped up to make a difference for the club each game, such as Michael Raffl against the Boston Bruins, Scott Laughton versus the Capitals, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel with the Lightning. Captain Claude Giroux didn’t earn a point in the round-robin.

Flyers-Canadiens Regular Season Series

Against the Flyers this season, the games were close and came down to the wire for the most part. Philadelphia won the first regular-season match against the Habs 3-2 in overtime. The Flyers regulation goals came from James van Riemsdyk and Philippe Myers, while the Montreal tallies came from Chiarot and Weber. The tie was broken in overtime by Flyers forward Sean Couturier. Price made 40 saves, while Flyers goalie Carter Hart saved 22 of 24 shots.

Philadelphia Flyers Sean Couturier
Philadelphia Flyers’ Sean Couturier won the first regular season game in overtime. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The second contest was a 4-3 overtime victory by the Flyers. Both squads split goals in regulation to force overtime again. Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny, and Oskar Lindblom found the scoresheet for Philadelphia, while the Canadiens got goals from Tatar (two) and Joel Armia.

This time, defenseman Ivan Provorov solidified the win for the Orange and Black. Brian Elliott made 39 saves between the pipes for the Flyers. On the other side, Kinkaid saved 25 shots out 29.

Unlike the first two matchups, the Flyers were not as successful in their third matchup with Montreal, which the Canadiens won 4-1. The Habs goals came from Ilya Kovalchuk (two), Tatar, and Artturi Lehkonen. For the Orange and Black, the production only came from Joel Farabee.

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Price was on his game, stonewalling the 40 shots that came his way. The Flyers did not have an answer for him. He is a good reflection of the Canadiens as a whole. When Price plays well, so does the rest of the club. If he is off his game, the rest of the team has its problems too. The Habs live and die with Price in a way.

Flyers goalie Alex Lyon was in net for that contest and stopped 36 shots of 40. Overall, the Flyers won the regular-season series 2-1.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Canadiens goalie Carey Price, shown here, is facing off against Philadelphia’s Carter Hart and/or Brian Elliott in a series that will revolve around strong goaltending. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Based on their regular-season series the Canadiens showed that they can keep up and compete with the Flyers. They could be a stellar test for Philadelphia, especially considering either team could have skated away victorious in the two overtimes games. Philadelphia has to find a way to have an offensive outbreak, especially when certain players like Jakub Voracek and Giroux did not score a goal in the round-robin tournament.

Goaltending Battle

Flyers goaltender Carter Hart, who turned 22 this month, grew up a big fan of Price. Now, Hart is looking to make waves of his own. He has done a superb job in the playoffs. He looked like a brick wall against both the Bruins and Lightning. Between those two contests, he had a 1.00 goals-against-average (GAA) and a .966 save percentage (SV%). The Flyers also have goaltending depth. Brian Elliott can be relied on as a solid backup. In his one round-robin contest against the Capitals had a .941 SV% and a 1.00 GAA.

In both the round-robin tournament and in their regular-season series against Montreal, the Flyers showed their goaltending depth. Head coach Alain Vigneault could put in either Hart or Elliott and have confidence in either one to make crucial saves and give their team the best chance to win. Right now, the keys have been handed to Hart, and he has done an excellent job so far between the pipes.

In the cases of both Hart and Price, they can help carry their teams. It will be a matter of which offense provides more aid for their netminder.

A Tone-Setting Game 1

Based on how the Canadiens handled the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round, there is some potential for the series with the Flyers to go six or seven games.

One reason the Habs could make this a series is based on their execution against the Penguins. In the qualifying round series, the Habs were able to stifle talents like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Malkin was held to just one assist in the series. Combine that with the fact that the Flyers have not had any goals from players expected to produce in Giroux and Konecny, and it could be a perfect storm for Montreal.

Game 1 was a good example of what the Flyers need to dom though. Hart stood on his head all night, turning away 27 of 28 shots. The Flyers kept their game plan of attacking with all four lines, and another contributor rose to the occasion in forward Joel Farabee, who notched a goal in the contest. That was his second goal of the playoffs, and overall he has three points in three playoff games as things stand right now.

Joel Farabee Philadelphia Flyers
Joel Farabee scored for the Flyers in Game One against the Canadiens. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Despite being able to shut down key players on Pittsburgh, the Habs were not as successful against Philly. Voracek, who did not score in the round-robin tournament, got one behind Price as well.

This first game set the tone off the bat for Philadelphia, but they have more work to accomplish. The final score was only 2-1 (Weber got the Montreal goal). The Canadiens have the tools on their roster to make this a close, drawn-out series. The Flyers are not going to have a cakewalk just because of where the Habs finished in the regular season. Montreal has shown that they can take care of business, as they did against the Penguins, and keep it close like in Game 1 versus Philly.

It is going to come down to the wire to decide who wins this. It is still early, and Montreal will come up with a counter plan against them, but the Flyers are on the right track. They just have to stick to what has been working.

Overall, the Flyers have been in good shape. They picked up right where they left off in the regular season by having a strong round-robin showing and first playoff game. They will have a test against Montreal the rest of the way. The Flyers cannot take the Habs lightly. If they are able to stick to their game that worked throughout the round-robin tournament, they will give themselves their best chance for success in this series versus Montreal.