NHL: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

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NHL: Eastern Conference Finals Preview
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The Eastern Conference comes down to two teams of destiny.

The Cinderella Canadiens disposed of the Presidents Trophy winners and defending Stanley Cup Champions.

The Flyers vanquished becoming the third NHL team, and fourth team in the NBA/NHL/MLB combined, to rally from a 3-0 series deficit to go on to win a series.

After all that dust settled, the NHL slogan of "History Will Be Made" is true—as this is the first time a No. 7 and No. 8 seed will meet in the Conference Finals.

So let’s break down this improbable matchup Pucking Awesome style.

 

No. 7 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

In a season of unpredictability, this takes the cake. The Flyers are the lowest seed to have home-ice advantage in the Conference Finals, and the Canadiens are the first eight seed to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals under the current playoff format.

The Canadiens, as Sidney Crosby will tell you, have had an interesting style of completely being outshot but still winning. They are actually 0-3 when they outshoot an opponent and 8-3 when they are outshot.

Michael Cammalleri has made an early case for the Conn Smythe Trophy, as he leads the league with 12 playoff goals, tied for the league lead with three game-winning goals, and is near the top with four power play tallies. The 5'9" speedy winger has combined with other criticized offseason pickups Brian Gionta (12 points and four power play goals) and Scott Gomez (11 points, five on power play).

Pending free agent Tomas Plekanec has followed up his great regular season (25 goals and 70 points) with a good playoff showing (four goals and 11 points).

The Flyers lost their top regular season scorer, Jeff Carter, in the first round and have had a number of forwards step up their performance.

Captain Mike Richards has exemplified the heart of this team and leads them with 17 points; no player has upped his game more than Daniel Briere, with seven goals and 15 points. Often the whipping boy of the Philadelphia fans for his contract, Briere has filled in as the second-line center for Jeff Carter, actually winning 52.2 percent of his face-offs. The 32-year-old has grown his reputation of coming up big in big spots, scoring three game-winning goals, and adding to his 72 career playoff points in 75 games.

Simon Gagne has also come back strong from his toe surgery to score big goals for the Flyers—including the game-winning goal in both Games Four and Seven. And Claude Giroux is once again showing he is a playoff-ready player, chipping in with 11 points and playing great two-way hockey (+3 rating).

Both of these teams pride themselves on playing great team defense.

The Canadiens have shown the world what blocking shots can mean to a team, as they have blocked 320 this postseason. The next closest team was Boston with 196.

They are led by the pair of Hal Gill (54 blocked shots) and Josh Gorges (44 blocked shots), who amazingly have shut down both Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

The storyline of players playing big when called upon is exemplified by rookie PK Subban.

When top-line defensemen Andrei Markov went out with a knee injury in Game One of the Penguins series, the recently turned 21-year-old stepped in and played big minutes. He has averaged 20:20 of ice time per game, has four points in nine games and a +3 rating.

Not bad for a player that had only two regular season NHL games under his belt, ironically both of those against the Flyers.

All signs point to Markov returning from his injury, thus creating more depth along the blueline for the Canadiens.

Depth has been prominent for the Flyers defense this postseason, as they have one of the best top four of those still alive.

Chris Pronger has been good as advertised, playing big minutes—a league-high 29:39 per game, and third in the league in scoring among defensemen with 11 points. The bruising defenseman has been paired with the fleet-footed Matt Carle, who is a +7, has seven assists and 29 blocked shots this postseason.

The other top pairing is made up of the underrated Kimmo Timonen, who is playing 26:59 per game, and 6'5" Bryadon Coburn, who is playing big with 28 hits thus far.

All four possess a calmness with the puck, great first pass out of the zone, and the innate ability to come up with a huge blocked shot. For all the talk of the Canadiens blocking shots, the Flyers are third in the league with 194 blocked shots of their own.

Another part of the Canadiens' puzzling strategy is playing in front of a ridiculously hot goalie.

No one will argue that the Canadiens would not be where they are today without the play of Jaroslav Halak.

The 25-year-old was pulled in Game Three of the Capitals series, did not start Game Four, and then went on to save 131 of the 134 shots he faced as the Canadiens came back from 3-1 to win that series.

The first-time playoff goalie has had to continue to stay sharp as the Canadiens are allowing 36.0 shots per game, and he's responded with a playoff-leading .933 save percentage.

The Flyers goaltending situation has been nothing but interesting.

Original backup-turned-starter, Brian Boucher, was spectacular in the first round matchup against the Devils, only allowing eight goals in all five games.

The 33-year-old then got knocked in Game Five of the series against the Bruins, and in stepped waiver-wire-season-savior, Michael Leighton, who was just activated that night from the injured list. Leighton, who was 17-9-2 after he was plucked off the Hurricanes roster, had not seen any action since a high ankle sprain sidelined him March 16th.

All the 28-year-old does is combine for a shutout in Game Five, gave up only one goal in Game Six, and finished off the miracle comeback with 22 saves in Game Seven.

Those forces combined have the Flyers leading the league in goals against average (2.42).

So in the Western Conference we have the probable matchup (No.1 vs No.2), and in the Eastern Conference we have the improbable matchup (No.7 vs. No.8).

The Canadiens have used fast starts, a league-high 15 goals in the first period, and good goaltending to win.

The Flyers have used their relentless pressure to cause turnovers and wear down their opponents.

With that in mind, a longer series (as Boston realized), seems to favor the Flyers. I have the Flyers winning this one in seven games, with that home ice for once (home teams 0-4 in Game Seven this postseason) coming in handy.

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