Many might argue simply getting the chance to play the Philadelphia Flyers is worth the Stanley Cup to the Montreal Canadiens. They’d be wrong.
Even if the Canadiens had virtually no chance of making the playoffs when the regular season ended, they are clearly in it to win it at this point. The fact that they lost out on a chance to draft Alexis Lafreniere by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in their play-in series should be sign enough that they’re not going to roll over for anyone. Especially not now, when they’ve got nothing left to lose.
Cap that with how the Habs are relatively still fresh. Hell, there’s probably even less quit in them than there would be otherwise. Definitely less so than for any other No. 12 seed set to face off against a No. 1 to start the playoffs in history, for sure.
In effect, the Habs’ season may officially be a success, but the players themselves can’t possibly be satisfied. All eyes, including theirs, now turn to the Flyers, against whom the Habs will have their hands full… the fans too, digesting the following top-ranked storylines that set the stage for what can quite possibly end up being an epic series:
5. Can Price Continue to Bring His ‘A’ Game?
It’s no secret goalie Carey Price was a key difference-maker against the Penguins. Case in point, his 1.67 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, each of which easily rank in the top 10 in the league, heading into the first round. The issue is Habs fans have watched this play out before. Price has stolen series before… just never twice in a single playoffs.
Consider how the Flyers ended the regular season on a 9-1 tear and then swept the round robin (against elite competition). They may objectively be the best team in the Eastern Conference, if not the NHL. So, Price will need to continue to bring his ‘A’ game for the Habs to have a realistic shot at the upset.
4. Price vs. Hart in Net
Not only will Price be facing a high-octane offense that scored a seventh-ranked 227 goals. He’ll also be facing one of the best young goalies in the game in Carter Hart.
Generally speaking, analysts would give the Canadiens the advantage in net in most any series. Maybe even this one due to Price’s experience. It’s not as clear-cut as that, though. Remember how Price is ranked in the top in both GAA and save percentage? Hart is ranked No. 3 in GAA (1.00) and No. 4 in save percentage (.966) so far. He also started more games than each of the players ahead of him.
Granted, it was just two games that Hart has started (to their one apiece), but the point is Hart is no slouch in the goaltending department. He could just as easily end up frustrating the Habs as much as the Habs and their fans hope Price will frustrate the Flyers.
It’s not necessarily the changing of the guard, as Price has six more years under contract, but Hart was notably a huge fan of his growing up. If anything, it’s the perfect opportunity for him to show Price what he’s got… and for Price to show everyone what he’s got left.
3. Julien vs. Vigneault (and Therrien)
From 1997-2006, the Habs went through three head coaches: Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien and Claude Julien. All three will be behind benches this series, with Julien, who was re-hired by the Habs in 2017, coaching against his two predecessors (twice in the case of Therrien).
Vigneault is of course the Flyers’ head coach. Therrien is one of his assistants, brought on by Vigneault at the end of last season once the Flyers hired him. That dynamic will be interesting to watch out for in and of itself, but so will Julien’s overall strategy.
Because of how outgunned the Habs were against the Penguins, Julien opted to play low-event hockey (admittedly to relative perfection). In contrast, the Flyers are already pretty low-event themselves, having earned a 16th-ranked 31.4 shots per game during the regular season and given up a league-low 28.7. The adjustments Julien makes should be intriguing.
2. Will Thompson Be a Difference-Maker for Flyers?
It’s easy to second-guess Habs general manager Marc Bergevin for the moves he made at the trade deadline, thinking the Habs had no realistic shot at a playoff spot. Knowing what he did at the time, Bergevin made the right moves, but at least one of them can come back to bite him in this series.
Bergevin admirably kept players like Tomas Tatar and Jeff Petry on board, but he did trade several players facing unrestricted free agency like Ilya Kovalchuk and Nate Thompson. He of course shipped Kovalchuk off to Washington Capitals. Thompson meanwhile went to the Flyers for a fifth-round pick in 2021.
Don’t let the relatively small price fool you. Common consensus is the Stanley Cup is won on the shoulders of depth players like Thompson. He may not score a lot, but he is valuable as a face-off-capable center who can also play the wing, who also isn’t afraid to get physical. Considering the injury to Habs center Jake Evans last round and how they’re regularly dressing Dale Weise, who played more in the American Hockey League than the NHL this past season, Thompson could have come in handy.
1. Will the Broad Street Bullies Beat Up the Habs?
Thompson, at 205 pounds, only adds to the undeniable size discrepancy between the two teams. The Flyers average out at 6-foot-2 and 199 pounds. The Canadiens meanwhile give up two inches and five pounds on average. It’s part of the reason why some believed the Tampa Bay Lightning would have been more suitable opponents for the Habs, based on their style of play (even though they’re technically even heavier than the Flyers).
Truth be told, the Habs may have more of a shot than many analysts give them credit for due to several factors. The Habs actually had more penalties in minutes this past season (546 to 526, ranked Nos. 21 and 22). More to the point, the Habs actually threw more hits than the Flyers (a fifth-ranked 1,882 compared to just 1,501).
So, while the Flyers have the capacity to hurt the Habs, chances are better it will just be on the scoresheet. It’s less a question of whether or not the Flyers will beat up the Habs. It’s more a question of whether or not they will simply beat them. They certainly have the capacity to do that too. Although, with the Habs having gone 1-0-2 against them this past regular season, this series meanwhile has the capacity to be much closer than many think