Hockey in August. A strange concept. But it’s been the strangest of years, so the idea that a team that wouldn’t have been close to hailing distance of a playoff spot now finds themselves in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series isn’t that far fetched.
Nor would a team that managed to slide into the #4 seed on an absolute tear from February into early March would pick up four months later and take out all three teams ahead of them to guarantee pseudo home-ice advantage until a potential Stanley Cup Final appearance.
But that’s the scenario we will watch unfold on Wednesday night when the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers begin their series against one another.
For the Flyers, this will be the first playoff series where they have had home ice since the 2011-2012 season when they lost to the eventual conference champion New Jersey Devils.
The constants from that experience? Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier are all seasoned veterans who have gone through the ups and downs of the past decade to know that opportunities like these aren’t guaranteed to come around regularly.
Philadelphia will draw from an impressively deep lineup that was able to absorb losing Michael Raffl to injury and sit players like Robert Hägg and Voracek to get a look at rookies Joel Farabee, Connor Bunnaman, and Shayne Gostisbehere without missing a beat in their performance.
The Flyers maintained a strong four-line effort that saw players like Tyler Pitlick, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and most notably Scott Laughton contribute timely offense, while center Kevin Hayes powered his line with Laughton & Travis Konecny and continue to be a key hub of a resurrected penalty-killing unit.
“Our group has bought into a system. We believe in one and another,” Konecny said. “AV has done a great job, just making everyone trust in one another. Every guy believes in the next guy behind them. It’s just a fun atmosphere to be a part of. Moving forward in the playoffs that’s what you need.”
If there’s an area of concern beyond relative inexperience, coach Alain Vigneault would like to see more offensive push from his stars like Giroux and Couturier. In addition, getting their power play on track is a top priority.
“Definitely our execution is an area that’s been off, which I’ve mentioned a few times that we’ve been working on,” Vigneault said. “Hopefully we can get it where it needs to be. It’s definitely a weapon during a series. It’s definitely something that we have a lot of confidence in.”
Defensively, the biggest story for the Flyers was the emergence of the Travis Sanheim-Phil Myers pairing. The potential for their grouping has always been there: big, rangy, with the possibility of offensive flourish. But their overall of play during the round-robin helped to power the Flyers especially when they wanted to apply a high forecheck that flustered the Bruins, Capitals, and Lightning respectively.
Their emergence gives Philadelphia an excellent top four with Ivan Provorov (who played very well in two of the three round-robin games) and playoff veteran Matt Niskanen, and solid third pairing options in Hägg, Gostisbehere, and Justin Braun.
In net, both Carter Hart and Brian Elliott put forward good to great performances. Hart, especially in the Lightning game withstood a few breakaways, one by Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov, and those momentum stops gave his teammates confidence.
The Canadiens’ driving force is the man that Hart has modeled his game after goalie Carey Price. One of the deans of the goalie fraternity, he carried Montreal through the first game of their Qualifier series against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins.
Add to the mix rejuvenated defenseman Shea Weber whose bear-like physicality made sure every Penguin forward who got close to Price came away not wanting to tangle and further emboldened his teammates to follow his lead in taking it to their opponents.
After the first two games, the Habs drew greater confidence knowing that they could skate with a star-laden Pittsburgh side that began to lose confidence as they exposed their defense and lack of cohesive transition game with strong neutral zone play that resulted in counter rushes.
One of the lines to sniff out that weakness was Phillip Danault’s unit with Arturri Lehkonen & Paul Byron. Byron in particular can be a shift disturber.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been the subject of draft day criticism and struggled at times in his rookie campaign, but he played a strong Qualifier series with two goals.
Center Nick Suzuki meshed exceedingly well with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher to provide the Habs with their biggest offensive threat up front, while the Flyers know they have to keep tabs on Joel Armia, who has had some good games against them, while Max Domi could get loose offensively from his fourth-line spot.
Beyond Weber, the Habs have a solid top four with Jeff Petry, Brett Kulak, and Ben Chiarot. All four can take the body & they help to shade minutes for young Victor Mete.
The coaching battle in this series is about as even as it gets. Jack Adams Trophy candidate Vigneault & former Stanley Cup champion Claude Julien are old school chess masters who are already in full playoff mode with neither revealing lines and reveling in gamesmanship.
For the Flyers, the Canadiens present a real challenge despite being the last seed into the Qualifiers. This is not a team that will be overwhelmed or bullied as they withstood the Penguins’ early barrage and turned the tables by the end.
The Habs will also look to continue the Flyers’ power play frustrations (0 for 11 in the round-robin).
That stated, the way the Flyers clicked during the round-robin despite the fact that their stars were held in check was an impressive sight. You could point to the other three round-robin teams and infer that they weren’t going full bore, but the Flyers played their systems effectively and got scoring from unlikely places. That stretches out the matchup considerations for Julien.
In their final round-robin game vs Tampa, Philadelphia got careless in the puck management at times and that led to turnovers that were luckily wiped out by Hart. Against the Habs, they need to keep things simple.
As expected, Vigneault will employ former Canadiens Nate Thompson in his preparations and he could prove to be an X factor on the ice in helping to neutralize some of their young pivots.
The Hart vs Price story is a fascinating one. The soon to be 22 year old was impressive in his two starts, but now he enters a true playoff series opposite an idol. Hart has faced pressure cooker situations before, most notably leading Team Canada to World Junior Championship Gold. He’ll need to draw on those lessons.
It’s a series that could very well go the distance, but the view from here is that the Flyers will win their first playoff series in eight seasons.