It may be unfair to anoint any 28-year-old a sage, but as far as playoff hockey goes, Maxime Talbot is as wise as any player in the Flyers’ dressing room.
Talbot has played in 72 postseason games in his seven-year NHL career, mostly courtesy of his success with the Pittsburgh Penguins. So, a layoff following the first round was nothing new to him.
Two years ago, Talbot said, the Penguins were waiting on a series between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens to finish up. As the series reached its seventh game, Talbot was pulling for Montreal.
“I was cheering for them because I wanted to go back home and have a chance to play in front of my family,” said Talbot, a native of Lemoyne, Quebec. “And Montreal was not supposed to be that good. We ended up losing in seven.”
Talbot had no shortage of opponents to root for this year. With the three other Eastern Conference quarterfinal series each going the maximum distance, the Flyers waited until early Friday morning to learn their next opponent will be the New Jersey Devils.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals begins at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center.
After his rooting interest two years ago backfired, Talbot told himself he’d never again cheer for another team come playoff time. Plus, none of the Flyers’ six potential opponents could have matched the personal connections Talbot had with the Penguins, whom he left for Philadelphia last summer.
“It was special,” Talbot said of the series after practice this week. “But it was something that I was ready for. It was intense. It was emotional and I’m glad we won.”
That polite but quick response, which came to a question he undoubtedly had been asked numerous times in the preceding days, was evidence that Talbot’s focus had shifted to preparing for the next series.
“It’s good to get some rest, refocus, refuel and get ready for Round 2,” Talbot said. “I really don’t mind that little break. I think momentum doesn’t really carry from game to game in a playoff series, so I really doubt it carries from series to series.”
That may be so, but the Flyers are counting on the defensive-minded Talbot mimicking his performance from the opening round, when the center collected three goals and an assist while finishing plus-5. Two of his goals came were short-handed.
Still, Talbot’s offense was something of a bonus. His line mainly was charged with slowing Evgeni Malkin, the likely Hart Trophy winner. The Flyers were successful at that with the exception of Game 4, when Malkin scored two goals and an assist in a 10-3 Pittsburgh blowout. Malkin scored just one goal and four assists in the other five games, not exactly the kind of performance the Pens expected from their most valuable player.
“As a line we talked a lot about it and how we played him,” said Sean Couturier, who primarily covered Malkin. “(Max) was really motivated. He really wanted to win. He helped us a lot. He knew a lot of their players and knew some tendencies. Just letting us know some of the little stuff they do made us prepare better.”
The line’s next task likely will be defending Devils forwards Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias. They may not be Malkin and Sidney Crosby, but they sure don’t struggle to find the back of the net. Kovalchuk finished fifth in the league in scoring with 83 points (37 goals, 46 assists) while Elias notched 78 points (26 G, 52 A).
Talbot also will be commissioned with keeping them quiet on the power play, where Kovalchuk and Elias each scored 29 points, tying for fifth in the NHL. During the regular season, the Flyers held the Devils to five power play goals on 31 opportunities.
“On the penalty kill, I’d put him at the top of the league,” rookie Matt Read said. “He’s so smart out there and he’s always giving direction to everyone else who is penalty-killing. He sees the game differently from a lot of other people. He’s very helpful to myself when we’re on the penalty kill together.”
Throughout the season, the Flyers relied heavily upon rookies like Read. That didn’t change against the Penguins, as seemingly every newbie took a turn in a starring role. Talbot said beating the Penguins provided a jolt of confidence for the rookie-laded Flyers.
“They have a great team, so I think for us to have played them in Round 1 is definitely a huge experience for a lot of the young kids and even for guys like me,” he said. “It kind of gives you a little mental (edge) that, OK, we really believe in ourselves. That’s always something good.
“I think in the playoffs, you need to build something, not only on the ice, but mentally in the dressing room you need to prove yourself things. I think by winning the series we proved to ourselves that we’re a really solid team.”
As a center who reached the Stanley Cup Finals in back-to-back seasons with the Penguins, Talbot knows the recipe for a deep playoff run. He said there’s a lot to like about the Flyers, who received strong play from both rookies and veterans alike last series.
“I like our room,” said Talbot, who scored the Cup-clinching goal for the Penguins in 2009. “I like the way we play. I think we have four solid lines. We have a solid D-group that stepped up. The young guys. … Veterans that are coming back. I can name a lot of things but it’s definitely something that can help us down the road.”
What Talbot doesn’t want to see is a repeat performance of the Flyers’ opening periods in Games 1 and 2. Their comebacks from multiple-goal deficits were thrilling, but that’s not a successful formula in the spring.
“Those starts would be something we still need to address and talk about it,” Talbot said. “But after that, you look at Game 6 over here and I thought we played 60 minutes of solid hockey. We played offensively when we needed to and we protected the lead when we needed to. … I think if we play like that for the games to come, I like our chances, because it was a pretty solid effort.”
It doesn’t take a sage to know that.