The Western Conference has featured some close, compelling playoff series. Not surprisingly, though, the two Western teams left standing are the top two seeds – the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks.
With all due respect to the great action from the West, the best and most shocking storylines of this year’s postseason have occurred in the Eastern Conference. The eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens have upset the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the Eastern Finals. And tomorrow night, the Philadelphia Flyers will attempt to become only the third team in NHL history to win a best-of-seven playoff series after losing the first three games.
How did the Canadiens beat the Penguins? In their first round upset of Washington, the Canadiens spent lots of time defending in their own zone, relying on goaltender Jaroslav Halak and a solid team defensive approach. Over the course of the Pittsburgh series, the Canadiens did improve in the area in puck possession, but their overall formula remained the same. Winning playoff teams typically utilize three important components: they receive great goaltending, get key plays at key times and are in synch in their game plan execution. Other than in Game 1, a 6-3 loss in which he was pulled, Halak maintained his remarkable play from the first round and was the difference in the Pittsburgh series. Mike Cammalleri continued his outstanding postseason – he recorded seven goals in the series and they always seemed to come at critical points in games. Brian Gionta contributed five goals of his own, including the tone-setting first goal just 32 seconds into Game 7. As a team, the Canadiens played as a solid five-man unit in front of Halak, blocked a lot of shots and held Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to two combined goals. Can they keep it going in Conference Final? Why not? Just as Pittsburgh seemed to get better and better through the playoffs last year, Montreal is playing its best hockey of the year when it matters most.
And what about the Bruins and Flyers? In an earlier column exploring the competitiveness of the first round series, I cited how the biggest obstacle for the lower seeds in the regular season had been a lack of consistency. But when those teams were playing their best, they were right there with the top seeds. The inconsistency bug, however, seems to have returned for the Boston Bruins at the worst possible time. Boston’s biggest issue during its regular season struggles was a lack of scoring punch. That wasn’t a problem for them earlier in the postseason, though. Through the first 10 games of the playoffs, the Bruins scored 32 goals and went 7-3. But they’ve only gotten one goal in the last two games and now the Flyers have forced Game 7. The Bruins’ inability to put the puck in the net is one reason why the Flyers have rallied. Much of the credit for Boston’s sudden offensive drought goes to the Flyers, who blocked 30 Boston shots in Game 6 alone.
Another reason for the shift in the series has been the injury pendulum. At the start of the series the Bruins were buoyed by Marc Savard’s return. He paid immediate dividends by scoring the overtime winner in Game 1. Philadelphia, conversely, was without both Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne.
But after winning Game 3, Boston lost forward David Krejci for the rest of the playoffs – he had produced eight points in nine playoff games. Then in Game 4, Gagne returned and, like Savard in Game 1, netted the overtime winner in his first game back. Gagne added two more goals in Game 5 and provided an important assist in Philly’s 2-1 win in Game 6.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Philly’s comeback effort has been the Flyers’ ability to ride out their roller coaster goaltending saga. Earlier this year, the Flyers turned to journeyman Michael Leighton, whom they plucked from Carolina off recall waivers. But Leighton, who enjoyed a great regular season, seemed to be lost to the Flyers for the year when he sustained a high ankle sprain on March 16. Brian Boucher was forced into action and helped the Flyers make the playoffs and played marvelously against the Devils in the first round. Then in Game 5 against Boston, Boucher got hurt. Amazingly, Leighton had had just enough time to recover from his injury, came into that game and completed the shutout that Boucher started. Then, Leighton was again terrific in Game 6. Kudos to former Lightning goalie coach Jeff Reese for his work with all Philly’s goalies this year.
Next week, I’ll take a look at the Sharks-Blackhawks series and the Eastern Final, both of which will have gotten underway.
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