May 24, 2010

Tonight's the night.

I missed Game 3 of the Flyers/Canadiens series thanks to an unavoidable black tie affair (ft. an open bar!) being thrown in conjunction with my brother's college graduation weekend. So I didn't see the Bell Centre going wild, I didn't see Montreal steamroll the Flyers, I didn't witness momentum supposedly moving up north in this best-of-seven showdown.

What I have seen in the other three games, though, is Michael Leighton, Flyers goalie, snaring every shot that travels through his crease. Of the 240 minutes played in this Eastern Conference Finals, I've seen 180 of them, and I've seen zero Montreal goals. I don't think that happens too often.

And that's why the Flyers need to shut the door tonight. Just when everyone thought the Canadiens were going to make it a series again, Leighton and the Philadelphia defense disagreed. They played the same shutdown style in Game 4 that we've seen since the middle of the Bruins series, and in response, Montreal managed a meager 17 shots on goal.

Chris Pronger has been an absolute beast this entire postseason, and perhaps refreshed by Pronger's contributions throughout the season, Kimmo Timonen has his freshest May legs as a Flyer. They, along with a sturdy forecheck and some expert shot-blocking, have turned the Canadiens into logo killers. All they can do is dump shot after shot right into Leighton's wheelhouse, and all the journeyman goalie has to do is choose between "bat away" or "hop on top."

This is not to discredit what Leighton has done; three shutouts in four games, even if you've got a team of Norris winners in front of you, is extremely impressive. But the Flyers have found themselves in the perfect hockey storm: two teams, Montreal and Boston, with limited offensive games and a lack of truly talented puck-handlers, swallowed by up Peter Laviolette's aggressive style.

So keep it up, and end this series in Philadelphia. Home-ice advantage hasn't proven to mean much in the 2010 playoffs, but Montreal's crowd is maybe the most ravenous in the league. If the Canadiens are able to steal a win and bring the Flyers back home, a quick goal in the Bell Centre could turn an early lead into an inescapable hole.

And I know everyone's going to say it, but look at what the Flyers did last series. If you really take it one game at a time, one goal at a time, no deficit is insurmountable. Hockey is such a back-and-forth, up-and-down game, and you don't want to give your opponent any breathing room. You want to step on their throats.

Most of the time, you don't win in the NHL playoffs; you survive. The most talented team is often playing golf in late May (example: Sharks, San Jose). The Flyers don't have to outshoot Montreal tonight, and they don't have to shut them out. They just need to outthink, outwork and outlast them. They've got a big lead in the series, and they've earned every bit of it. Three more periods of the same brand of smart hockey, and we can start thinking about the Stanley Cup.

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