Habs-Flyers Preview

Tonight kicks off the best-of-seven series between the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers. Lets take a look at the match-up…

Philadelphia Flyers
42-29-11, 95 points

The Flyers had one of the best playoff series in the first round against the Washington Capitals that went the full seven games. In typical Flyers fashion, they made life miserable for the home fans by blowing Games Five and Six, but for once the Flyers came through to end their suffering, even if it is just for one night.

The Flyers will once again be the underdog going into the series with the Habs, but this series will by no means be a blowout just because Montreal won all four games against the Flyers this season. Get ready for another great six or seven game series.

Forwards

Daniel Briere was a monster in the Caps series. Briere had points in every game of the series and leads all players will 11 points heading into the series. Vinnie Prospal has been a godsend for Briere ever since coming over from the Lightning in a trade deadline move. Prospal is tied for second in the league in points with nine. Not to be outdone was Mike Richards, who has tied for 10th with two goals and five assists. Jeff Carter was one of the Flyers most aggressive forwards when he had the puck with his size and speed. He will once again be counted on to be a difference maker in the series.

Overall the Flyers’ balance on offense will pose a huge challenge for Montreal, much more so than offensively challenged Boston did, and they took the Habs to a seventh game.

Defense

Kimmo Timonen had the job of covering Alexander Ovechkin during the Caps series and did a great job despite Ovechkin’s four goals in the series. Braydon Coburn was solid all series long and is paired with Timonen. The rest of the Flyers’ defense is suspect to say the least. Derian Hatcher and Jason Smith are both over 30, and looked it playing against the Caps’ faster, younger forwards. Head Coach John Stevens will have to limit both players’ ice time to mostly penalty-killing time if they are to have success.

Lasse Kukkonen should get more ice time as the sixth spot on defense, but this situation that might change on a game-per-game basis. Rookie Ryan Parent is the future, but as usual the Flyers don’t use rookies in the playoffs unless they feel they have too. Realistically he should be in the lineup against the faster Canadiens. Randy Jones will remain in the lineup but he could also sit a game or two in this series.

Goaltending

So many questions were asked about Marty Biron heading into the playoffs, but so far he has answered all or most of them. He has definitely answered the one about if he is good enough a playoff goaltender. Besides Briere, Biron was arguably the Flyers best player. He also answered the question about handling games on back-to-back nights which he did in fine fashion winning Game 7, after losing Game 6 the previous night.

Montreal Canadiens
47-25-10, 104 points

Has Montreal already won the Cup? According to their fans, apparently so; as they rioted and carried on like they had won it all after they knocked off Boston. Most fans and cities have the common decency to actually wait for a championship before going wild, especially since it took seven games to beat a team they were supposed to defeat in four. I guess if they beat Philadelphia, the Canadian Marines will need to be on hand.

In actuality, it was a shame the club’s fans had to take some of the spotlight off the gritty Canadiens club they support. After a tremendous first game against the Bruins, the Habs were defeated soundly through the next five games. But the Canadiens—with a little prodding from Coach Guy Charbonneau—played like true champions in Game Seven, leaving little to chance.

Forwards

Saku Koivu was the Canadiens’ best forward after returning from a foot injury in Game Six. He played over 15 minutes in each game, and was physical and productive with three assists. It could be argued Koivu is their best forward, but Alex Kovalev is the most influential. Kovalev can almost be considered the barometer of the club. When he plays well, the team does, too. When Kovalev was on against Boston, Montreal dominated; when he was held in check, the club was ordinary. Christopher Higgins rounds out the line. The unit of Tomas Plekanec and the Kostitsyn brothers produced secondary scoring like a first line would as they combined for seven goals (Kovalev played with Andrei and Sergei at times in the first round).

Bryan Smolinski played well defensively against Boston and his line with Steve Begin and Tom Kostopoulos also picked up a few back-breaking goals. Mark Streit gets the occasional shift up front and he has played well when healthy. Michael Ryder, Guillaume Latendresse and Mathieu Dandenault wrap up the front lines.

Defense

Andrei Markov needs to play better in this round and Roman Hamrlik needs to provide the same spark he did in the first round. Michael Komisarek has turned into a shot-blocking, physical beast. Komisarek went through a seven-game battle with Milan Lucic that had to wear on the Montreal defender. Komisarek will be on the ice when the best Philadelphia forwards are and the Flyers are probably going to come after him just as the Bruins did. Patrice Brisebois and Francois Bouillon had their ups-and-downs in the first round against Boston. They are going to have to be steadier in this round. Josh Gorges is Carbonneau’s best defensive option after the top three defenders. Ryan O’Byrne is the top reserve.

Goaltending

Carey Price is going to be more consistent against Philadelphia than he was against the Bruins, because there is little to no wiggle room. Two shutouts and then two games with five goals against just won’t do it. Price was told to stop wandering from his cage so much before Game 7 against Boston and had a great game while keeping it simpler than usual. Price is a big goaltender who fills up the bottom of the net, it may be a cliché to go high on a goaltender that plays this style, but when Boston got the puck higher they scored more. Jaroslav Halak did little more than open the bench gate in the series against Boston.

What to Expect

The Canadiens pretty much had their way against the Flyers this year, and historically have done very well against Philadelphia. Montreal had the same historical success against the Boston Bruins as they do with Philadelphia, and that series worked out well for them in the end.

Montreal fans booed Boston’s Zdeno Chara all series long, and will do so with a vengeance against Daniel Briere. The locals believe Briere spurned an excellent offer to return home to Quebec during this past summer’s free agent season. Montreal is in control of their destiny in this series. They have to treat each game as if it were important, they cannot go into cruise mode like they did against Boston for a few games and still win this series.

Montreal will be the quicker team on the ice, but Philadelphia has some guys who can fly too. The forwards are going to need to play with desire against a bigger and better defensive crew than Boston has and the Flyers also have more weapons than the Bruins did. Desire and goaltending will be keys for Montreal.

For the Flyers, the key will be to score first and to score often. The defense can’t afford to keep on blowing two-goal leads. Montreal won’t slack off for a second in this series, so keeping up with the Habs will be the key to the Flyers winning.

Biron has a slight edge in goal over Price, despite the high expectations that are on him. Price is not in the Hall Of Fame, but most Habs fans are treating him as though his bust is already en route.

Still, on the surface it looks as though this is a match made in hockey heaven. It should be a great series that will most likely go the full seven games.

Contact the author at BJENNINGS@INSIDEHOCKEY.COM. Tom Schettino from PROHOCKEYNEWS.COM also contributed to this article.

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