Sunday, May 16, 2010

Flyers vs. Canadiens: Conference Final Breakdown

Now that the dust has settled from the miracle comeback, it's time for more hockey! Hopefully the Flyers found some time to rest and get themselves mentally prepared to take on a new opponent, one with entirely different obstacles that must be overcome. Due to the ridiculous upsets in the Eastern Conference this year, the 7th seeded Flyers have the good fortune of having home ice advantage in the series, although it hasn't meant much so far in the East. Let's take a closer look and see if the Flyers have what it takes to get four more wins and get themselves into the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 13 years.

Offense: Montreal has proven all the doubters wrong as their undersized forwards have come through big in the playoffs. All 5 foot 9 of Mike Cammalleri has been tremendous for them, scoring nearly a goal per game (12 goals in 14 games) and making the most of every power play. Fellow shrimp Brian Gionta (5 feet, 7 inches) has also been big, chipping in 7 goals, while the rest of the scoring has come here and there from the bottom lines. After facing the weak back ends of the Capitals and Penguins, it's going to be a real test for the Canadiens to see if they can continue to defy the odds against the bigger and stronger Flyer defensemen.

The Flyers scoring has been very balanced in the playoffs, with 6 different players chipping in at least 4 goals. Anyone who has watched the Flyers in the postseason knows that the offense flows through Mike Richards, Danny Briere and Claude Giroux and that the return of Simon Gagne has solidified the Flyers top two lines as being real scoring threats. Besides the big four, anything the Flyers get from Scott Hartnell, James van Riemsdyk and Ville Leino has just been icing on the cake as each has had big moments throughout the playoffs. Just like they have in every series, the Flyers forwards have the advantage simply based on their ability to score across all lines.

Defense: The Flyers defense is what has gotten them this far, with the foursome of Chris Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn acting as a pair of shutdown defense pairings. These four are much better than anything the Canadiens have faced up to this point and won't let Montreal have as many uncontested shots as they have grown accustomed to. It will be interesting, though, to see if the Flyers D wears themselves down chasing the diminutive Canadiens around the ice, especially since the Flyers haven't been able to rely on anything from their third defense pairing.

The Montreal defense has kicked it into another gear in the playoffs despite the absence of Andrei Markov. With big Hal Gill shutting down opposing forwards when he's healthy and P.K. Subban emerging from the minors and contributing big minutes immediately, the Canadiens certainly have some talent in the back end. After that, however, there is a drop-off to guys like the ancient Roman Hamrlik and Marc-Andre Bergeron, who has racked up a -10 in the playoffs. The Flyers depth gives them the edge on defense.

Goaltending: Once again, the Flyers face a goaltender much better than their own. Jaroslav Halak has been incredible in the playoffs, shutting down the best two offenses in the league seemingly all on his own. While the Flyers have had success against Halak in the past, he has upped his game to a whole new level. As for Michael Leighton, as long as he keeps being in the right place at the right time, he will be successful. The Flyers aren't asking him to stand on his head and he won't have to for the Flyers to advance. Despite how surprisingly good the Flyers goalies have been in the playoffs, the big edge has to go to the red-hot Halak.

Special Teams: Both of these teams have been great on the penalty kill and even better on the power play. The series will likely be decided by which team does better with the man advantage but, on paper, everything appears to be even.

No matter which team emerges from the Eastern Conference, there is going to be a great story behind it. Both teams have claims to being a "team of destiny" and both have overcome big deficits in a series to be where they are now. With each team also coming off a seven game series, expect there to be a lot of tired bodies as the series goes deeper and turns into a battle of attrition. I am predicting the Flyers to win in 6 games because the Canadiens forwards aren't going to be able to create as many scoring chances against the Flyers stout back end and the Flyers have proven that they can find ways to beat a hot goaltender. Whether the Flyers have enough to get past whichever tough opponent emerges from the Western Conference will have to be determined later but the Flyers look like the best team left in the East.

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