By Chris Iorfida
It's official. The Montreal Canadiens will visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday in the first-ever NHL conference final between seventh and eighth seeds (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET).
The Flyers booked their ticket on Friday night by coming all the way back against the Boston Bruins, winning the final four of seven games in the series. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs (1942) and New York Islanders (1975) achieved the feat before them.
Montreal and Philadelphia will meet for the sixth time in the playoff history, with the Canadiens winning three times. The post-season battles include the Habs coming out on top in the 1976 Stanley Cup final, as well as brawls that took place between the clubs in two series in the late 1980s.
The newest chapter is welcomed by Flyers forward Daniel Briere, who grew up in Gatineau, Que.
"It's pretty amazing, a seventh and eighth seed, [taking] kind of the same path a little bit ... and being a French Canadian, it's always a little bit extra-special playing Montreal, there's no doubt about it," Briere said minutes after the Flyers eliminated the Bruins.
It might sound strange to say given that the Canadiens went the seven-game limit in upsetting both the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Presidents' Trophy recipient Washington Capitals, but in many ways Philadelphia could pose their most challenging test.
Here's a few reasons why:
It's easy to forget sometimes that the Canadiens don't have a monopoly on the improbable. You don't think the Flyers believe they have the whiff of destiny about them?
The Flyers came back from 3-0 down in the series and were down to their last bullet before Gagne scored the Game 4 overtime winner. Philadelphia then gathered themseleves in Boston's building after falling behind by three goals just 14 minutes into Game 7, scoring the final four goals of the game and series.
Philadelphia has perservered through a carousel of changes in net caused by three injuries. The No. 1 goaltender this season has been Ray Emery, and then Brian Boucher, and then Michael Leighton, and then Brian Boucher again, and now Leighton again.
They have also survived playoff injuries to key forwards Jeff Carter, Ian Laperriere and -- for a period of three games -- Simon Gagne.
Finally, the club changed coaches during the season, from John Stevens to Peter Laviolette. The coaching switch
There's been plenty of turnover for both clubs since 2008, but several players remain from the Eastern semifinal in which Philadelphia defeated Montreal in five games. Briere, Scott Hartnell and Mike Richards each enjoyed a multiple-goal series to help bury the Canadiens.
This season the clubs split four games. The first game won by Montreal on Dec. 7 wasn't very instructive, a deadly dull affair in which the teams combined for just 28 shots. Boucher and Carey Price were in the nets, and they're not likely to figure in the conference final.
The Canadiens hung on dearly in the second victory, on April 2, which required Halak stopping all 35 shots in a 1-0 win.
In between, the Flyers fairly bullied the Habs to pick up wins on consecutive nights just before the Olympic break in February. Defenceman PK Subban, in his first two NHL games, was one of just a handful of Canadiens to stand up to Philadelphia's intimidation tactics.
Montreal is deserving of plaudits after containing arguably the three most skilled players in the league over the first two rounds: Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Flyers don't have that one galvanizing offensive force, but they have something that the Penguins and maybe even the Capitals lack -- consistent secondary scoring.
Philadelphia, even without Carter, still has six players in the lineup who scored at least 14 goals this season. The list doesn't include talented late-season pickup Ville Leino, who stepped into the lineup in the Boston series and contributed two goals and four assists.
The list is headed by Mike Richards. The captain isn't quite on the level of Ovechkin, Crosby or Malkin, but he can score regularly while also giving maximum effort in his own end, something that can't always be said of that trio.
Through two rounds of the playoffs, the Conn Smyth Trophy candidates for three of the teams seem pretty clear: Jaroslav Halak for Montreal, Jonathan Toews for Chicago, and Joe Pavelski for San Jose.
A strong case can made in Philadelphia for both Richards and defenceman Chris Pronger as the team's playoff most valuable player, a reflection of their team approach.
The style it takes
The Philly forwards don't figure to take the kind of ill-advised shots that Washington regularly wound up with. The Flyers had to contend with a Boston squad that dove in front of many shots, and they adjusted.
Philadelphia may not boast the overall skill level up front of the best Penguins and Capitals, but they also drive to the net and put bodies at the head of the crease much more successfully than those two clubs.
The challenge might even greater for Montreal in the Philadelphia zone. It doesn't detract from what the Habs have accomplished to suggest that the defensive and goaltending performances put forth by the Penguins and Capitals haven't exactly ranked with the best of these playoffs.
The Canadiens have yet to play a team in the postseason which features a big, bruising defenceman who also brings offensive abilities to the table. Pronger's play has evoked comparisons to his strong effort during the 2007 Stanley Cup run with Anaheim, without the undisciplined lapses he had that spring.
Kimmo Timmonen and Matt Carle are also there to provide the mobility that the Philadelphia blue-line has often lacked in recent years.
All of this isn't to suggest that Philadelphia is the most impressive juggernaut ever seen. Leighton's comeback from injury is a great story, but it has to be rememebered that he faced a Bruins team that ranked seventh in the NHL in shots during the season and dead last in goals. In other words, they're quite adept at hitting the goalie's crest.
Montreal has a cadre of speedy forwards, and combined with the fact that the Flyers were the most penalized team in the league, the Canadiens could make Philadelphia pay on the power play.
And of course, there's that one word that has ruled above all else. Halak.