In a season that was dominated by the usual suspects of the Eastern Conference, nobody could have predicted the chaotic atmosphere of collapse and comeback that the playoffs have provided.
Now, the East’s unlikely heroes are on the home stretch as teams set their sights on Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Storyline: On the brink of devastation, the Flyers and Habs have combined for nine straight victories in an elimination situation. Now, the streak will end as time runs out on one underdog while another strives towards immortality.
Offense: When we talk about the explosive Philadelphia offense, we have to start with the inspiring performances of Daniel Briere.
You may remember Briere’s playmaking, game-breaking potential during his years in Buffalo, but it was not until the four game comeback against the Bruins that Briere earned any shred of his enormous paycheck.
He had five goals and five assists in the series alone, putting him second on the team in scoring this playoffs.
As it always seems to be, the Flyers are also a team reliant on scorers with injury problems.
Simon Gagne, perhaps the most notorious of all in this category, had a goal a game during the Boston series and was instrumental in Philadelphia’s win. Gagne, when healthy, is still as lethal a scorer as he ever was and is undervalued by opposing teams.
Other Flyers to watch with the puck include Ville Leino, Claude Giroux, and, of course, Mike Richards.
All three have made big points and big plays this playoffs. Leino barely managed to stay afloat during the regular season, yet he’s now earning his roster spot for next year with a defiant stand in scoring.
For Montreal, the offense begins and ends with just one name: Cammalleri.
Michael Cammalleri’s playoff performance this year is nothing short of awe inspiring. His 12 goals dwarf any other scorers thus far for the league lead, and he’s proving he can hit the net from anywhere on the ice.
If it weren’t for Cammalleri, no amount of great defense and saves would have gotten the Habs this far.
Montreal’s other top scoring forces, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec, continued to play successful hockey during the second round. Gionta’s big game experience has really started to come into play while Plekanec may be playing for 30 team scouts starting July 1st.
Montreal’s next biggest threat is one of the quietest: Scott Gomez.
Gomez may be overpaid and will likely never produce a 30-goal season, but his value during the playoffs is higher than any current player still remaining in the postseason.
Sure, Johan Franzen plays at double capacity in May and we all know that Marian Hossa will get you the Cup finals, but Gomez has Cups from New Jersey and hasn’t recently had a playoff series where you can say he underperformed.
Despite what they’ve accomplished so far, Montreal’s scoring hasn’t compared to any of their opponents and still doesn’t in this round.
Defense: Not known for being shutdown by any definition of the word, Philaldelphia’s bruising offense allowed the Boston Bruins to score easy goals at various times during the first three games of the second round.
But then they stepped up to tie the series before the hectic game seven conclusion. Who’s to thank here?
Let’s start with Matt Carle, a clutch player castoff from the San Jose system who has thrived in the do-or-die atmosphere since scoring a game-tying goal against the Rangers in Game 82 of the regular season.
Carle went a plus-6 in the second round and is playing better than any Flyers defender.
Then, of course, there’s Chris Pronger.
Pronger’s defensive prowess has already yielded two Stanley Cup finals appearances, yet he’s still due for that mandatory suspension.
The decisively aggressive Pronger is the heart of a defense that, with the exception of Carle, hasn’t consistently shown up this postseason. They’re known for being a two-way kind of team, yet Philadelphia’s defense has only five goals (four of which are Pronger’s).
In Montreal, the defense cannot be measured by statistics alone.
If it were, you’d discover that they are abysmally in the minus, and have been exchanging defenders left and right during their past two rounds. But when clutch performances are at a premium, the Habs have delivered.
Rookie sensation P.K. Subban is the talk of the town and perhaps the NHL after emerging from the depths of the minor leagues to be everything Montreal could want and more.
He’s on his way to becoming a franchise defender after playing only nine games. Subban’s appearances came when Montreal was forced to shuffle the deck due to Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek suffering injuries.
And if you need more proof that statistics aren’t everything, turn your attention to Josh Gorges.
He’s drawn the hardest assignments of any player in the postseason, taking on Malkin and Crosby just one round after Ovechkin and Backstrom.
Gorges does nothing to add to a stat sheet, yet he’s kept his head above water and generally isn’t allowing scoring opportunities when he’s on the ice.
Comparing these two blue line registers is like comparing apples and oranges. In this case, the oranges may be a bit too bitter to pass the test.
Goaltending: Philadelphia’s Achilles heel all season is goaltending.
The Flyers started any number of net minders during the regular season that started with Ray Emery and eventually degenerated to Brian Boucher as the trusted No. 1.
During the fifth game of the Flyers’ struggle with Boston, Boucher bit the dust with his own injury, giving former Flyers starter (former as in earlier in the season) Michael Leighton one more shot at the big time.
Leighton played quite well in his limited action over the past three games, registering a 1.54 goals against average and a .943 save percentage.
Leighton’s star may never truly rise, though, as he’s up against the widely-recognized MVP of the Playoffs thus far.
Jaroslav Halak got Slovakia further in the Olympics than was expected, and for the past month, he’s the most dialed-in player in all of the NHL. You can’t beat him high or low, and it seems as if he can only give up a goal once every 45 shots.
In fact, the soon-to-be restricted free agent has been so good at keeping the Canadiens in the hunt that the only real flaw in his game this postseason has been his inability to record a shutout.
Simply put, if you can’t beat Halak at least twice a game, you have no chance to win.
Outcome: The biggest headache for the NHL and Gary Bettman would be to see a Canadian team continue to throw caution to the wind by eliminating yet another media coverage favorite (The Flyers, Penguins, and Capitals received more National Media games than any other teams in the East) from the Cup hunt.
It is in that nightmare that dreams become a reality. Canadiens in seven.