FFR2 Round 1, Game 6 - PHI 3, MTL 2 - Flying High
Me, internally: *Stay calm, don't freak out, it's just one round*
Me, externally: "OH MY GOSH I CAN'T BELIEVE THEY ACTUALLY DID IT LETS GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"
THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS WIN GAME 6, 3-2, OVER THE MONTREAL CANADIENS. THEY WIN THE SERIES, 4-2, OVER THE MONTREAL CANADIENS. THEY WIN A SERIES FOR THE FIRST TIME IN EIGHT YEARS AND THEY'RE GOING TO THE SECOND ROUND FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE I STARTED GIVING A CRAP ABOUT THEM SIX YEARS AGO.
Alright, now that I'm calming back down to Earth, let's get something out of the way. Congratulations to the Montreal Canadiens on an amazing series. The Habs had an insanely better return to play than anyone thought, knocking out Pittsburgh in four and giving the one seed Flyers everything they could handle. The Canadiens defense and forecheck was absolutely stellar, and Carey Price played out of his mind. Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi look like a real deal 1-2 center punch. Shea Weber is still elite. The Habs are going to be a scary team next year and going forward.
Ok, that's enough sportsmanship, let's talk Game 6. Both teams entered the game short-handed thanks to Matt Niskanen's cross-check to the face of Brendan Gallagher, with the former suspended and the latter out with a fractured jaw. Alain Vigneault was having none of it, perhaps remembering when Gallagher mocked Derek Stepan, then a player for Vigneault's Rangers, in the middle of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final for yapping with the same injury. After a pretty boring first four games, Game 5 was one for the history books, and Game 6 promised to pick up right where it left off.
And boy did it ever. Just 28 seconds into the game, a face-off win by Kevin Hayes turned the puck back to the left point, where Ivan Provorov was waiting. Provy flipped a simple shot that nicked Shea Weber's stick, baffling Price for the game's opening goal! Just like Claude Giroux in 2012!
But wait a second, it's a clearance night at Scotiabank Center! Every first round series must go! Twelve seeds, defending champions, move on or get out of the bubble. The Price is right for two goals at the value of just one. Seconds after a Flyers power-play expired, Derek Grant made a nice pass from the side of the goal to Kevin Hayes right out in front. Hayes showed some extra patience, opening up Price's 5-hole. He appeared to try and find TK for a tap-in, but the puck wound up tipping of Price's pad and into the net. Hollywood Hayes finally bags his first of the series, and the Flyers lead 2-0 just 5:23 in!
Of course, the Canadiens would not go down without a fight. From that point on, Montreal took control of the game, and never really let it go. This certainly wasn't a dominant performance by the Flyers, or even a true complete shutdown contest like Game 3 or 4. Montreal ran the show for most of the game, and though the Flyers earned their luck, the Habs could definitely argue they deserved a better fate tonight.
Nick Suzuki cut the Flyers lead in half just a few minutes after the Hayes goal, burying a power-play rebound. Montreal's only real blemish in the first period was a lack of discipline; the Flyers spent six minutes of the period on the power-play, and while they didn't score, at least they generated some nice chances and with only one exception tonight (progress!) didn't give the Habs any short-handed offense.
However, if it wasn't clear Montreal was running the show in the first, it became impossible to ignore in the second. Through two periods, the Canadiens had a gaudy 5-on-5 Corsi (67.35%) and xGF (62.33%), taking the Flyers to task. Hart had to come absolutely huge, robbing Armia at the side of the net just a few minutes in. The Flyers managed just seven even strength shots on goal in the first 40 minutes. Furthermore, the Habs' stifling defense held Philadelphia to just one shot on goal through the first 13:54 of the second period.
The good news is the Flyers made it count. No, that shot didn't come on Travis Konecny's first-minute breakaway. Instead, Kevin Hayes found Travis Sanheim trailing on an odd-man rush, and Sanheim activated into the slot. His shot grazed Michael Raffl, clanged on the post, then improbably squirted in off the back of Price's pad for an ugly yet beautiful goal! Price was bumped a bit by Ben Chiarot, but they don't ask how, just how many, the Flyers third of the game ends up being credited to Raffl for his third of the playoffs, and the Flyers two-goal lead was somehow restored!
That restoration didn't last long however. A crafty move at the side of the net by Jonathan Drouin sucked the Flyers defense to the middle of the ice, with no one (including Hart) picking up Nick Suzuki backdoor. The young stud slammed home a sharp-angle one-timer 89 seconds after the Raffl goal, his third quick counter to a Flyers goal in the last two nights.
Suddenly, the Flyers found themselves in heavy retreat mode. The Canadiens had them on their heels for the entire rest of the frame. Before the horn sounded, the Flyers broke two sticks, had Hart's stick knocked out of his hands, and Ivan Provorov had to go to the bench after losing his helmet, leading to a dangerous scoring chance. Claude Giroux added to the yard sale early in the 3rd by dropping a glove. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't as much as effective so much as it was the Flyers hanging on by the hair on their playoff beards.
However, the game completely flipped in my eyes at the start of the third period. Alain Vigneault must have given his club the pep talk of a lifetime at intermission, because the Flyers played the third period about as perfect as you could ask for. Suddenly, Philadelphia was on their toes. The Canadiens could barely move the puck into the offensive zone, and now the Flyers were immediately getting the puck out. At the other end, Philly's relentless forecheck was finally let a bit of the leash, forcing a handful of Habs turnovers on what would've been easy breakouts in the 1st and 2nd, killing plenty of time in the offensive zonae.
Montreal had just five shots through the first twelve minutes of the third, but as the numbers decreased, the Canadiens desperation increased. The Habs really turned it on in the back half of the frame. Hart robbed Tomas Tatar with the knob of his stick in the final seven minutes. Xavier Ouellet crept in from the point and managed not one, not two, but three point-blank backhanders in the final six minutes. Hart stopped all of them, then made a kick save and a beauty from a Petry point shot off the ensuing face-off in the final five minutes.
By this point, I was pacing through my dorm room, trying to stay calm in the face of something I've wanted for so long finally becoming a reality. Finally, the Canadiens made their last gasp effort, pulling Price for the extra attacker. The Flyers were able to keep Montreal to the outside and make life easy for Carter, but Tyler Pitlick iced the puck with 10.9 seconds to play. Kirk Muller called his timeout, trying to draw up a season-saving play for the Canadiens. Vigneault could only watch as Nate Thompson, the defensive specialist the Flyers acquired from Montreal at the trade deadline six months and a whole other world ago, lined up for the biggest face-off of his career.
That is precisely when my TV froze. I couldn't believe it! All this time waiting and watching and I don't even get to experience the final seconds? What if the Habs tied it? My stream had paused on a few occasions earlier in the game, drawing more and more frustration each time, but this time I just laughed. I waited six years for this moment; another 10.9 seconds won't kill me.
Seriously, though, imagine the panic, the horror, the sheer terror that shot through me when my stream returned with everyone standing right in front of the Flyers net and John Forslund openly stating he wasn't sure if the game was over. For a second, I thought maybe Montreal had pushed home an equalizer right at the buzzer. But while I was stuck in limbo, Thompson won the draw, tied the puck up in the corner, and Montreal was only able to push it to the side of the net before the clock hit zero. The only reason the Habs weren't skating off to comfort Carey Price? Nick Suzuki had some unfinished business, which Derek Grant was kind enough to take care of.
There are two ways you can look at this series. You can be concerned that the Flyers didn't look dominant at any point against the #12 seed (unlike the other #1 seed Vegas, who blitzed Chicago in 5) and raised more questions than answers about their power-play and overall offense. That's certainly a fair criticism of their play, and they definitely need to be better to have much of a shot to go deep.
Or you could look at it the Kevin Hayes way. "It speaks volumes to our team that we didn't play up to our capability and we still got four wins," Hayes said post-game (thanks to Charlie O'Connor, @charlieo_conn, for Tweeting that out). Hayes is just as right as the cynics in the previous paragraph. The Flyers didn't play anywhere close to as well as they did down the stretch in March or in the round robin against Washington, Boston, and Tampa (one of the last two awaits if the Flyers can win another round, but we'll worry about when we have to). And yet they still found a way to beat a feisty Canadiens team fresh off dethroning Pittsburgh, holding them to two or fewer goals in four of six games, including two shutouts.
Carter Hart was excellent for most of the series. The power-play finally started to show some signs of life. The depth started to pick up their play in Game 6, with Derek Grant turning in his best performance of the series on fourth-line left-wing with Thompson and Pitlick (his first Flyers game at wing). The defense survived losing their most dependable right-hand shot in Matt Niskanen without missing a beat (well, at least without missing any more beats than they did in Game 5). It may not have been the perfect storm we had in mind at the beginning of the series, but the Flyers do have a lot of positives to take with them into the next round. Oh right, the next round. The second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's uncharted territory for a lot of this team. The Flyers haven't been here since 2012, when they ran out of gas after an absolute war against the Penguins and were shut down by the Devils in five games. The Flyers will meet the New York Islanders, another outstanding defensive team that is basically Montreal on steroids. They certainly won't be an easy beat, if a beat at all, and expect another full series breakdown before Game 1, which will probably be either Sunday or Monday night.
But for tonight, celebrate Flyers fans. It's been a long time since the Flyers have been here. I was ten years old, still in elementary school the last time it happened. I didn't even like hockey back then. I started to pick the sport up on a whim after being wowed by TJ Oshie's heroics at the 2014 Olympics. My first Flyers memory is watching them lose Game 7 that year to the Rangers. That was the pinnacle of my fandom, the farthest I had ever seen a Flyers playoff run go (save very scant memories from 2010). Until now. I don't know about you, but I'm incredibly excited for what's to come.
Win, lose, or draw (or half-draw since this is the NHL, but then again there aren't loser points in the playoffs so I guess that's out), I can't wait to see what the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs have in store for the Philadelphia Flyers (and in general, too). For now, sit back, relax, have a martini so grand that AV would approve, and enjoy the series win, Flyers fans. Hopefully the next one comes in a little less than eight years.
Only four players from the Flyers-Devils 2012 second round series will suit up for the Flyers against the Islanders: Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and James van Riemsdyk. Only three others (Brayden Schenn, Braydon Coburn, and Zac Rinaldo) played NHL games this season. And only six Devils (Adam Larsson, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Andy Greene) are still active, with Zajac the lone current Devil.
Thirteen of the twenty-three Flyers (56.5%) that played at least one game against Montreal have never been past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their career.
This is Vigneault's first series win since the 2017 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, when his Rangers defeated, and tell me if this sounds familiar, the Canadiens in six games. Vigneault has now won a playoff series in his first season with every team he's coached in the NHL (Canadiens - 1998, Canucks - 2007, Rangers - 2014, and Flyers - 2020). Game 6 was a monkey off the back moment for Kevin Hayes. The Flyers second-line center has been buzzing all series, creating tons of chances but scoring just one assist in the first five games. On Friday, Hayes broke through for his first goal of the playoffs (and just his fifth in 49 career playoff games), also scoring his first ever goal against Carey Price in 26 games (regular season and playoffs).
Each of the Flyers goals in this game involved Montreal friendly fire. Provorov's shot was inadvertently tipped in by Shea Weber. Hayes' tally was actually a pass for Pitlick that Arrturi Lehkonen deflected through Price. And Chiarot bumped Price on the Raffl goal, preventing him from being able to find the puck behind him. Montreal never really had Lady Luck on their side at any point in the series, but it was never clearer than in the clincher.
Alain Vigneault made a couple really interesting lineup changes for Game 6 that all seemed to work out. James van Riemsdyk and Shayne Gostisbehere returned to the series, replacing Connor Bunnaman (healthy scratch) and Matt Niskanen (one-game suspension). That in itself wasn't a shock, but his deployment of them was.
JVR played left on a third line featuring Scott Laughton on the right (something I don't remember him ever doing before) and, for the first time in 2020, Claude Giroux down the middle. G is obviously a more effective winger at this stage in his career, but I thought the trio held their own. They were the most notable line when it came to disrupting Montreal's breakouts in the all-important third. Their line led all Flyers in 5-on-5 Corsi For% in Game 6.
I was also very surprised to see how Ivan Provorov's partners worked. AV did say before the game he was going to fill Niskanen's void by committee, but considering the gamesmanship in withholding information by both coaches, I wasn't sure if he was genuine. But AV started Provorov with Ghost, his partner in crime from 2017-18, then phased in Braun, his opening week partner, and Robert Hagg through 40 minutes.
However, in the third period, Provorov played almost exclusively with Phil Myers, a duo we've never seen before. I hope we don't have to see it again, but not because they did poorly; rather, I hope that circumstances allow Myers to stay with Travis Sanheim and Niskanen and Provorov to re-click in Round 2. Heck, maybe an extra breather isn't the end of the world for Niskanen, who hasn't wowed anyone since the return to play.
Provorov's goal was the fourth fastest opening goal in an elimination game in Flyers franchise history, the quickest since Gary Dornhoffer in Game 7 of the 1975 Semifinals (19 seconds). Only Eric Lindros in Game 5 of the 1997 Conference Quarterfinals (14 seconds) and Terry Murray in Game 4 of the 1981 Preliminary Round (7 seconds) have them beat (NHL PR). That goal was also Provorov's first ever in the playoffs.
The Flyers remain undefeated (7-0-0) in the playoffs when scoring first. In seventeen of their last eighteen playoff games, the team that scored first has one (Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal against Pittsburgh being the lone exception).
Carter Hart is the fifth active goalie to win a series clincher at 22 or younger, joining Seymon Varlamov, Braden Holtby, his idol Carey Price, and Matt Murray, who is the only one to win multiple (four). Well, unless Carter keeps on winning.
1st - Carter Hart (PHI) - .939 SV% (31/33), 2 GA on 2.59 xGA
2nd - Nick Suzuki (MTL) - 2 Goals (3, 4), -1 on Head Taps
3rd - Ivan Provorov (PHI) - Goal (1), Team-High 24:39 TOI
Round 2, Game 1 vs. New York Islanders - 8/24, 7 PM
*Advanced Stats via Naturalstattrick.com