Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens
The odds of the Philadelphia Flyers ever holding home-ice advantage in these playoffs were infinitesimal from the start. The only team against whom they would have home ice is Montreal, and to meet them Philadelphia would have to go through New Jersey and likely Pittsburgh, while Montreal would have to defeat Washington and then probably Buffalo. To the surprise of most hockey observers, the Flyers triumphed over the Devils with ease, while the Canadiens upset the #1 overall Capitals. Coupled with Boston’s win over Buffalo, this setup Philly-Boston and Montreal-Pittsburgh. The odds of a Philadelphia-Montreal meeting seemed hopeless 10 days ago, with the Canadiens down 2-1 in their series against the defending Cup champions and the Flyers on the brink of extinction facing a 3-0 deficit against Boston. Yet both teams have pulled off the improbable, and now the #7 and #8 seeds meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. Who will be the unlikely representative of the East in the Stanley Cup Finals?
The Flyers defeated the Devils pretty easily in 5 games, but the scores and the result exaggerated what was in fact only a mild advantage for Philadelphia. Total shots for the series were slightly in favor of New Jersey, 126-125, although Philadelphia led on shot quality and on total chances. The real difference-maker in this series was Brian Boucher, or depending on your point of view the inability of the Devils shooters to bury the puck. The Devils scored 8 non-empty-net goals in 5 games, of which 4 were in their sole victory in game 2. For the rest of the series, Boucher shut the door, and the least celebrated goaltender going into the playoffs was easily superior to his counterpart Martin Brodeur.
Much will be written about the Flyers comeback victory over the Bruins, but suffice it to say that over 7 games the Flyers were the better team. The Flyers had a mild edge on overall shots, 215-208, and again dominated on shot quality. Obviously a series that goes 7 games and is decided by a single goal could have gone either way, but justice was served in this case.
In both cases, the Flyers have beaten their opponents by being better at even-strength, outscoring the Devils and Bruins 24-15 at 5-on-5 and 4-on-4, and through .their penalty-killing. During the regular-season, the Flyers penalty-killers were the best in the league at preventing shots on net, allowing only 43 shots per 60 minutes (vs 52 average) and this trend has continued in the playoffs, where they are again averaging 43.
Given that the playoff goaltending has been solid, their two playoff wins are not a surprise. Excluding goaltending, Philadelphia was the 8th-best regular-season team, with a combined offensive and defensive GVT of +13.9. While Leighton will never be Jaroslav Halak, his career AHL numbers have been excellent, and his numbers with Philadelphia this season equally so.
Whatever I say here is going to be extremely controversial. For those who want more insight into how the Canadiens defeated the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, I highly recommend Behind The Net Hockey, where Gabriel Desjardins has written a series of articles on the Canadiens’ shots and scoring chances against their opponents. Bottom line: the Canadiens were massively outshot and outchanced in each playoff series, being outshot by 143 shots over 14 games, yet have emerged with 2 series wins and an even goal differential of 36-36. How did they manage this? In order of least importance to greatest importance:
- The Habs have played structured, disciplined hockey, with players being in position. Additionally, they were successful in blocking many shots, and had few dangerous turnovers. For a good example of the Canadiens’ hustle (and the lack of their opponents’), see goal #4 here.
- Jaroslav Halak has played like the second coming of Dominik Hasek.
- They have been incredibly lucky.
By all rights, the Canadiens should have been outscored by 14 goals over their first two playoff matchups, yet they finished even. While you could assume that their defensive system plays to Halak’s strengths (I just think Halak is good, and beyond that they got lucky), there’s no justification for the fact that they’re shooting 10% when the rest of the league is shooting 8.6%. This stuff just happens, but unfortunately it doesn’t happen forever.
Sadly, despite all of my fancy-schmancy statistics, I’m just going to tell you what you already know. The Flyers’ run has been largely built upon two of the most integral pieces for Philadelphia- Mike Richards and Chris Pronger. Richards has been phenomenal in the playoffs, lining up against the opposition’s top line night after night. He has put up points both at even-strength and on the power-play, ranking 5th in the NHL scoring race (and 3rd among players still alive), while managing the 3rd most total ice time of any forward in the playoffs, behind only Sidney Crosby and Brian Gionta. Richards' dominance in the second season doesn't end there, as his DeltaSOT of +3.5 in the playoffs is 4th in the league, and he is +6 at 5-on-5 (his official plus-minus of +2 is polluted by 2 empty-net goals against and a shorthanded goal allowed). The Canadiens’ objective will be to make Richards feel the same way Crosby did in the previous series: contained, frustrated and ineffective. If they don’t, it could be a short series.
Pronger, as usual, has been rock-steady. He leads the playoffs in total ice time by any player, despite playing only 12 games (Montreal has 14, Pittsburgh 13), and is the top-scoring defenseman among the final four. His presence on the penalty kill has been absolutely essential, and he has managed to stay away from Pronger-style penalties borne out of over-aggression.
On the Canadiens side, I don’t think there will ever be as many babies named Jaroslav in a single month in Montreal than there will be in May 2010. Halak has simply been the man, holding his outshot and outgunned team together. As I covered this week, Halak is truly one of the best goaltenders in the league, so while I doubt he can keep this up for another month, there’s no reason to expect him to regress significantly. Let’s just say that Halak leads the league in playoff GVT by a wide margin with 8.1, and barring a collapse should be the Conn Smythe winner even if the Canadiens make it to the finals and lose.
While much has been made of Michael Cammalleri’s scoring, one player who’s been key in stemming the flow of attack against the Canadiens is Scott Gomez. Gomez is just about the only Canadien who doesn’t spend his entire shift in his own zone every time he’s on the ice, a trend that will have to continue if the Canadiens want to keep their magical spring alive.
Goaltender Brian Boucher, leading regular-season goal-scorer Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere are injured for the Flyers, and none is likely to be available for this series. While Leighton is doing Boucher’s job just fine, the loss of Carter is a serious one. Carter posted a 13.3 GVT this season and a 21.0 GVT last year, and he’s the Flyers’ major offensive weapon after Richards.
For the Canadiens, the only injury is to defenseman Andrei Markov, but what a loss it is. Markov is far and away the Canadiens’ best player, and the Canadiens were languishing out of the playoffs until his return from injury in December. Luckily for them, Markov’s place has been taken by defenseman P.K. Subban, who has been a revelation in the playoffs and has mitigated the loss.
This is an extremely difficult call. Based on Bayesian ratings over the regular season and playoffs, the Flyers are a 56% favorite to win this series. This seems fair: the Flyers were a better regular-season team, and their playoff performance so far has been more impressive than the Canadiens', albeit against weaker opponents. Both teams, at this point, seem like sentimental favorites: the Canadiens for their two incredible underdog upsets of the Capitals and Penguins, and the Flyers for their 0-3 comeback against Boston. As an aside, I still don’t see how the Flyers “made history” with their comeback when it’s already been done twice, but regardless it’s an impressive accomplishment.
Since it’s so close, I’m going to defer to my colleague Timo Seppa. Before the playoffs even started, Timo explained to us why the Canadiens were his underdog choice for the Cup. He then proceeded to make the courageous prediction that I could not, calling Montreal over Pittsburgh. I don’t see either of these teams giving up an inch, but if you’re going to go with the underdog from the start, you might as well stick with them all the way until the end. Nous croyons!
Prediction: Montreal Canadiens in 7 games.
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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