Round 1 Playoff Preview: Montreal Canadiens vs. Philadelphia Flyers
The beginning of the playoffs is always a special occasion, no matter what time of year it is. Sixteen teams sixteen wins away from the greatest trophy in sports, but only one can lift the Cup at the end. While there are certainly favorites, wild cards, and underdogs, anyone, from the one seed to the last team in, can and has won it all. Even without fans to watch in person, the excitement is as high as ever, especially in the City of Brotherly Love.
It has been 843 days since the last time the Philadelphia Flyers played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. What a wait it has been. Ever since the Flyers lost Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal 8-5, a game in which they held a 4-2 lead with less than half of the game to go, the team, coaches, management, and fanbase have been waiting for them to return.
Yet only eleven players, three coaches, and neither the GM nor assistant GM that watched that collapse twenty-eight months ago are around for this series. The Flyers basically went through an organizational overhaul in fall 2019 after a disappointing start last season. Ron Hextall and Dave Hakstol, among others, were fired. Wayne Simmonds and Radko Gudas, among others were traded. Carter Hart and Phil Myers, among others, were called up. Kevin Hayes and Matt Niskanen, among others were brought in. Alain Vigneault and Chuck Fletcher were handed the keys to bring this franchise back to glory.
So far, so good for the new regime. The Flyers emerged from a mediocre first half to become one of the best teams in the NHL. From January 8 on, they were tied with the Bruins for best record in the league. They won nine of their final ten games before the pause, then picked up right where they left off by sweeping the round robin. Philadelphia held the Bruins, Capitals, and Lightning to one goal each, beating all by multiple goals despite their top five goal scorers being shutout. Carter Hart played great in two games. Brian Elliott was great in the other. Everything is clicking right now for the Orange and Black. It's clear no one wants to play them.
On the other hand, everyone wanted to play the Montreal Canadiens when the qualifier round began. The Habs were the worst team from the East to make the tournament, and many people thought they shouldn't be included at all. Montreal was just 31-31-9 in the regular season. They sold pretty heavily at the trade deadline, including dealing their fourth-line center Nate Thompson to the Flyers. Carey Price didn't live up to his best goalie in the world billing. And yet they had outstanding underlying numbers in the regular season (2nd in Corsi and Expected Goals For% at 5-on-5). Then they took out a dark-horse Cup pick in Pittsburgh, making the Penguins look uninspired at best and unimpressive at worst.
Both of these teams have taken very different journeys to get here. But both are here, and right now, that's all that matters. Last year proved that anyone can beat anybody in the playoffs. However, at the end of the day, the Flyers are the number one seed for a reason. Though the Habs will certainly not be an easy out, this is a tremendous opportunity for the Flyers to win a playoff series for the first time in eight years, which is tied for the fifth longest active drought in the NHL.
The Matchup: #1 Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7) vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9)
Recent Meetings: Two in semi-recent history. In the 2008 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, a young Carey Price was torched by a red-hot R.J. Umberger, as the Flyers kicked out the Canadiens in five. The more memorable series was the 2010 Eastern Conference Final, featuring the #7 seed Flyers and #8 Canadiens. The Flyers dominated the series, with Michael Leighton posting three shutouts and Philly once again advancing in five.
Season Series: All three games were pretty close this season. Carey Price played outstanding for 60 minutes in the first meeting in Philadelphia, as the Habs erased a 2-0 deficit. However, the game lasted more than 60 minutes, and Price bobbled an easy shot from Sean Couturier, allowing it to sneak under his arm and over the goal-line for the OT winner.
The second contest also went to overtime. Brian Elliott let in a weak goal less than 30 seconds from Joel Armia. The Flyers tied it on Oskar Lindblom's last goal of the regular season, the Habs quickly responded, and the Flyers quickly tied it again. TK finished off a pretty passing play early in the third to give the Flyers their first lead, but the Habs tied it up late on the power-play. This time, the overtime winner was anything but soft. Ivan Provorov went end-to-end, through-the-legs, and top-shelf to end a November where the Flyers tied for the NHL lead in points.
Montreal got their revenge in the final meeting. The game started out as a goalie duel between Price and Alex Lyon, starting for an injured Carter Hart. Joel Farabee gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead late in the period with his first goal in over a month, but Montreal somehow tied it before intermission. A two-goal performance from new Canadien Ilya Kovalchuk (remember that?) gave the Habs a lead they would not lose, en route to a 4-1 victory on the road.
The Journey Here: Almost no one gave the Canadiens a shot at advancing against a Penguins club that finished just three points behind the Flyers in the standings. However, Carey Price turned back the clock with an incredible performance that looked like it came from his 2015 Hart Trophy winning days. Jeff Petry dropped the first bomb with an overtime winner in Game 1. After Pittsburgh tied the series and jumped back out to a 3-1 Game 3 lead, the Canadiens went off. Montreal scored five unanswered goals - three in Game 3 to comeback, with Petry banking a wrister off Murray for the winner. All-star Tristan Jarry started Game 4 for the Pens and played well, but Artturi Lehkonen buried an incredible set-up from Paul Byron to break a scoreless deadlock with just 4:11 left in the 3rd.
After a white hot finish to the regular season, many thought the Flyers would be unable to replicate their incredible stretch play in the bubble. However, the Flyers proved that not even time itself could slow them down. They took down the Bruins 4-1, Capitals 4-1, and Lightning 4-1 with relative ease. Their defense was great and the offense created plenty of chances, to the tune of 55.43% Expected Goals For. Carter Hart proved he could win away from Philly, turning away, stopping 57 of 59 shots in two starts.
Who's the Favorite: The one seed.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: The Flyers are dealing with less pressure than most one seeds in recent memory. No one would have expected them to be in this situation when the season began. After all, the Flyers had just 82 points last season - fourteen fewer than Montreal. Their underlying numbers were pretty terrible, especially under interim head coach Scott Gordon. Each of their major additions (Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun) had big question marks. Carter Hart had just 31 NHL games to his name.
Both teams are in a market that expects them to win. Philly and Montreal fans are notoriously impatient groups. Marc Bergevin is probably feeling more pressure than anyone. Montreal has made just two playoff appearances since 2016 and hasn't won a round since 2015. He's made some really bad moves (Alzner and Price contracts) and some really good moves (Pacioretty and Subban trades - who would've thought?). Maybe if the teams were closer in seeds I'd call it a toss-up, but because of the hype that the fanbase is getting swarmed in, this category belongs to the Flyers.
Player(s) to Watch For:
PHI - I'm cheating here and going with multiple players. In my opinion, the Flyers will go as far as their second defense pairing of Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers goes. We know Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen should be great. But they can't play the whole game. While Justin Braun, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Robert Hagg all have their skills, they also have their flaws. Unless Ghost goes 2016/2018 vintage, it's going to be tough for any combination of those three to be counted on.
Enter Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers. The two played together in the AHL during the 2017-18 season, but the coaching staff was hesitant to play them together in the NHL because both are young and offensively-minded. Injuries to Ghost and Braun in mid-January forced their hand, however, and the two got their shot. After a bit of a rocky start, their chemistry returned, and the two emerged as the dynamite pair behind Provy and Nisky the Flyers had been waiting for.
In their final 19 games (post all-star break for the Flyers) the duo posted a 53.64% Corsi (14th of all d-pairs in the NHL with at least 150 5-on-5 minutes) and 55.73% xGF (12th in the NHL, and 1st on the Flyers) at 5-on-5. They gained confidence with each game, began to make fewer mistakes, and generated more and more offense. Both looked good in the round robin (54.9% xGF), and if they can continue their strong play, the Flyers defense will be as deep as their outstanding forward corps.
MTL - If anybody is going to haunt the Flyers in this series, it's going to be some combination of Jordan Weal, Dale Weise, and Christian Folin. That's right - the Canadiens have THREE former Flyers on their roster (and that doesn't even count third-string goalie Cayden Primeau, son of former Flyers captain Keith). Weise and Folin were dealt to the Flyers in a cap swap last year for Byron Froese (left as a UFA) and David Schlemko (buried in the AHL, then bought out in the summer). Fletcher's first trade in Philly was sending Weal to Arizona for ECHLer Jacob Graves and a 6th. He was flipped to Montreal at last year's deadline.
Weise has had his moments in the playoffs before, scoring two overtime winners in his first stint with the Canadiens. Weal is the more dynamic of the group. Flyers fans remember his solid offensive skill-set and 12 points in 23 games at the end of the 2016-17 season. He hasn't been able to replicate that success since, but he has versatility and seems like he could be that random third-liner that goes off on every team that goes deep.
Line Breakdown (per Daily Faceoff):
Tomas Tatar-Nick Suzuki-Brendan Gallagher
Jonathan Drouin-Jesperi Kotkaniemi-Joel Armia
Arturri Lehkonen-Phillip Danault-Paul Byron
Dale Weise-Max Domi-Alex Belzile
Montreal enters this series with their lines very jumbled. Claude Julien opted to spread out their best players to counter the Penguins star power, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him shift things around against a much more balanced Philadelphia forward group. Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher are both extremely underrated wingers who drive play and score at a strong place. Gallagher is known as one of the best spark plugs in the NHL, a small yet fiesty forward capable of getting in anyone's head. Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick in 2014, has had flashes of brilliance in his career before - none brighter than the 2016 playoffs, when he scored 14 points in 17 games. In fact, Tatar, Gallagher, and Phillip Danault finished 1, 2, and 3, respectively, in 5-on-5 Corsi. Wow.
If you were given each of Montreal's four centers, I'm not sure anyone would expect them to be arranged like they are. Let's be real, Nick Suzuki is only good because of this:
Vegas eventually wound up with that pick, used it on him, and dealt him to Montreal (along with Tatar and a 2nd) for Max Pacioretty. When Suzuki inevitably scores the series winner I'm gonna become the Flyers version of Steve Bartman.
2018 third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi had a pretty solid rookie season and a came back with a vengeance against Pittsburgh after a disappointing sophomore season. As a rookie, Kotkaniemi was so good defensively some people already started penciling his name into future Selke ballots. He was on the ice for just 0.47 expected goals against in their first series, fewer than any player in the qualifier not named Gabriel Landeskog with at least 30 5-on-5 minutes (lower that to 25 and you can add Alex Pietrangelo, Derek Grant(!), and Jared McCann ahead of him, too).
On the other hand, Phillip Danault is a legitimate Selke contender right now. He wasn't named a finalist, but I'd be willing to bet he's top five, and if not, he probably should be. Danault probably got snubbed in part that he doesn't have the point total of a Couturier or O'Reilly, but he did post an impressive 2.69 points per 60 at even strength, easily first-liner level. I wouldn't be surprised to see Danault switch spots with one of the youngsters at some point in this series, especially if the Flyers first line starts to click.
Max Domi at center is interesting (remember, Arizona drafted him as a winger), but having him on the fourth-line is even more so. Perhaps Claude Julien was hoping to spread out the Habs offense, but all it really did was shut down Domi, who put up a goose egg against the Pens. Domi took a major step back after a career-high 72 points last season, but he and Danault will probably be the first two players to be promoted if the Canadiens go down early.
Ben Chiarot-Shea Weber
Brett Kulak-Jeff Petry
Xavier Ouellet-Victor Mete
Everyone was stunned by the PK Subban-Shea Weber blockbuster four years ago, and after two seasons, it seemed like Nashville had won the day, just as we all predicted. However, Weber has the better player each of the last two years. At 34, Weber has aged like fine wine, posting the 14th best Corsi and 20th best Expected Goals For% at 5-on-5 out of 197 defensemen with at least 500 minutes.
Equally good but more underrated is Petry, although perhaps that might start changing after his clutch performance in the qualifier, scoring two game-winners late in Game 1 and 3. He was actually even better than Weber, putting up the 4th best Corsi and 7th best Expected Goals For% among defensemen in the NHL. Those two are a dynamic duo that few teams can match, combining for 76 points during the regular season and seven in the qualifier round.
Fortunately for the Flyers, the Canadiens don't have a lot to support them. Ben Chiarot has been a surprisingly good fit - his analytics are also impressive, but that very well may be a product of playing with Weber. Most 29-year old players don't go from sub 48% Corsi and xGF% to plus 52% in one year, and he wasn't anything special against the Pens. Brett Kulak fell back to Earth after showing some promise last season. Victor Mete is a solid young defenseman, but he and mediocre Xavier Ouellet were caved in by Pittsburgh (34.49% xGF). The Flyers will be looking to take advantage when they're on the ice.
Philadelphia Forwards (Projected)
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Scott Laughton-Kevin Hayes-Travis Konecny
Joel Farabee-Derek Grant-Nicolas Aube-Kubel
James van Riemsdyk-Nate Thompson-Tyler Pitlick
If Voracek can't go for the start of the series, I'd expect Farabee to stay at first line right wing (where he was Saturday against Tampa), JVR moves up to line three, and Connor Bunnaman slots in. But this is what the Flyers lineup will probably look like in Game 2 at the latest. Claude Giroux had a bit of an underwhelming season after combining for 187 points the last two seasons. However, that's easy to explain due to confusing power-play formations that have been removed and about a dozen games at center, his weakest position. Giroux finished the regular season on fire, putting up 20 points in the last 15 regular season games.
Sean Couturier has officially emerged as an elite first-line center in this league and is probably going to win the Selke. Reading on The Athletic, it was suggested that maybe Couturier might not be as important in this series is he would be against, say, Pittsburgh, because the Canadiens don't have a clear-cut first-line. However, Kevin Hayes is also good defensively, both at 5-on-5 and especially the PK. His line with Scott Laughton and Travis Konecny was absolutely on fire, combining for five goals in the round robin. A lot of fans (myself included) would rather have started Laughton at 3C to accommodate Joel Farabee, but that's a moot point with Michael Raffl on the shelf.
The Flyers depth is what made the difference for them in both the regular season and round robin. Once a major weakness of the team when it was populated by plugs like Chris VandeVelde and Corban Knight, the Flyers have an incredibly tenacious and surprisingly skilled group. James van Riemsdyk is not a fourth-line winger when he's on his A-game. Sure, he's a streaky player, but JVR scored just 19 goals this year, shooting 12.6% compared to 15.1% over the last two seasons. He was even more unlucky on the power-play, scoring just four goals, his lowest since 2011-12 (though it's worth noting he wasn't great analytically on the PP).
The rest of the bottom-six is made up of typical bottom-six players, except they're actually good. Nicolas Aube-Kubel has become a revelation less than a year after clearing waivers, establishing himself as a tenacious forecheck while also chipping in at a 34-point pace. Tyler Pitlick found similar success in a depth role, not scoring as much but contributing on Philly's forecheck, which is notable for all of the right reasons. He also has an underrated shot, scoring a couple outstanding snipes in the regular season.
Derek Grant and Nate Thompson were concerning deadline additions; both were pretty bad puck possession players before coming. Though analytics still don't love them, I've seen every second they've played as a Flyer, and came away satisfied with Thompson and more than that with Grant. Add in a solid rookie campaign from 2018 1st rounder Joel Farabee, who possesses great hockey IQ and some scoring ability, and you've got an incredibly deep team.
Ivan Provorov-Matt Niskanen
Travis Sanheim-Phil Myers
Shayne Gostisbehere-Justin Braun
I already talked about the Myers-Sanheim pairing at length, so we'll stick to the other two groups. Ivan Provorov took a concerning step back last year, but the addition of Matt Niskanen put him right back on track as one of the best future defensemen in the NHL. Provorov has led the Flyers in ice-time each of his four NHL seasons, and played through a Grade 3 AC shoulder sprain in Game 6 of the 2018 playoffs. Though him playing may have hurt the Flyers more than it helped, it showed Provorov's incredible determination and resilience. His seven power-play goals led all defensemen, although that says more about his great shot (17 goals in 17-18) than his quarterbacking ability (his xGF% on the power-play was 5th worst in the NHL among d-men with 100+ power-play minutes).
Niskanen also had a disappointing 2018-19 season, but unlike Chiarot, I'm not concerned at all he was carried by partner. That's mainly because Niskanen has a much better track-record, highlighted by his great play in Washington's 2018 Cup run in a major shutdown role (41.37% O-zone starts in the playoffs). Justin Braun followed basically much the same track, improving his Corsi by over 5.5% and his Expected Goals For by almost 20(!)%. That's in spite of playing with a Shayne Gostisbehere who struggled and a Robert Hagg who has been caved in at 5-on-5 his entire career.
The battle for the sixth d-spot should be a fierce one. Hagg was in the lineup for the entirety of the Flyers 9-game win streak at the end of the regular season. He was routinely outshot and outchanced, but somehow churned out a ridiculous 105.8 PDO (team shooting percentage + save percentage when Hagg is on the ice), which is literally third in the league for players with at least 400 5-on-5 minutes. HE FRIGGIN' LEAD THE LEAGUE IN LUCK! Like what? Now the question is do you try and ride that bender that hasn't been going strong for four months. For what it's worth, Hagg was at fault for both 5-on-5 goals the Flyers allowed in the round robin, with one going off his skate and the other being tipped it by a player he couldn't box out.
Shayne Gostisbehere had a nightmare year, scoring just 12 points in 41 games and failing to drive play, something he was at least decent at in his first two down seasons of his career. He may never be the same player that almost won the Calder in 2016 or received Norris votes in 2018, but if he can be the Gostisbehere that showed up against the Lightning (80.01% xGF, two assists), watch out. A dynamite third pair is the only thing the Flyers haven't had yet this season, and on paper, Gostisbehere and Braun should fit together perfectly. It hasn't worked out that way yet, but maybe they're just saving their best for the most important part of the season. With a cap crunch impending, it may truly be now or never for the Ghost.
Philadelphia Wins If: They just keep rolling. While their superstars were just fine offensively during the round robin, the Flyers are an extremely close team that is buzzing in all areas. They don't have any major weaknesses thanks to extremely great forward depth (when everyone is healthy, there's a fierce battle for the last lineup spots). An elite defensive team with the elite forward talent the Flyers have is a tough matchup for anyone. Carter Hart may be young, but he's been in big moments before and hasn't skipped a beat. His great play in the round robin (especially against Tampa Bay - 1 goal allowed on 2.05 expected) alleviates any concern.
Montreal Wins If: The Habs are going to have to grind out the Flyers if they want to win this series. Montreal just doesn't have the high-end talent to out-skill Philly. The problem for them is that the Flyers are great at wearing down opponents with their forecheck and tenacity, as Alain Vigneault (former Canadiens head coach) has done a great job rolling four lines and three pairings. But the Canadiens also have a deep and balanced forward core. Much like the Flyers, they took Pittsburgh to task with some of their bigger names (Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Philip Danault) failing to light the lamp, which is both concerning and intriguing.
Of course, Montreal's biggest x-factor is Carey Price. Though the stats say he isn't the best goalie in the world anymore, a lot of players still think he is, and sometimes perception can become reality. Price's .947 save percentage leads everyone so far in the playoffs, as he stopped an impressive 4.07 goals above average. Granted, he was just average during the regular season (.909 save percentage, -1.31 goals saved above average), so we'll see if this is just a hot streak or a true return to form.
Montreal's defense has a great foundation, but things are a little sketchy behind Weber and Petry. Up front, youngsters Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are they key. If Montreal is able to get away with them as their top two centers, the Flyers may have a hard time handling the Habs from a match-up standpoint.
Injury Report: This is one area where the Habs have the Flyers beat. Only depth center Jake Evans is out for Montreal. Michael Raffl suffered a serious-looking injury against Boston, and Alain Vigneault said he'll "be out a while." Of more significance, the Flyers third leading scorer Jakub Voracek was unfit to play in Philly's final round robin game Saturday. He's officially a game-time decision for Game 1, but he did tell the media that he feels fine. And Oskar Lindblom won't be ready until September at the earliest, so he won't be available for this series.
The Pick: I've always considered a "normal" playoff series, especially one seed vs. last seed, to be the favorite wins the first two, the underdog wins Game 3, and the favorite restores order and wins the next two. That's exactly the pattern the 2010 series between these two clubs played out (in 2008, the Flyers lost Game 1 and took the next four).
In a year full of the unordinary, the most unordinary thing to happen would be something ordinary. My official prediction isn't that this series will follow the aforementioned cadence. But it is that the Philadelphia Flyers will win their first playoff series since 2012, and first since I became a fan in 2014, in five games.
Oddly Specific Prediction (credit for this idea goes to Down Goes Brown): One or more Flyers score three plus points in at least half of the games in this series.
*Advanced Stats via Naturalstattrick.com