Ladies and Gentlemen, we now cordially invite the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals party. Their RSVP may have been two games late, but they crashed it about as emphatically as any team in their situation could have.
After losing Game Two in Philadelphia to go down 2-0 in their best of seven series against the Flyers, Montreal was faced with plenty of questions leading up to Game Three on their home ice tonight. How could they match the physical intensity of Philadelphia? Would Jaro Halak hold up or had he run out of magic? Could they tighten up in the defensive zone and limit the lapses? How in the hell would they possibly beat Michael Leighton?
These questions and more were answered in an emphatic display of desperation Thursday night at the Bell Centre. How did the Habs match the Flyers’ earlier physical intensity? They ran them into the boards every chance they got tonight. Montreal finished their checks, and even went out of their way to let the Flyers know that although they may have had a 2-0 lead in the series heading into tonight, that lead was in serious jeopardy now that the series was back in Montreal. It seemed almost as if there had been a role reversal in the tone of physical play. The Flyers, who lead by having the term “physical” basically coined as their middle name, took a beating tonight from Montreal, who is traditionally a far more finesse team. The Maxim Lapierre monster was released on Philadelphia; all he needed was the comfort of home ice to display his fierce attack strategies. Jaroslav Spacek suddenly became a wizard with his stick in all the wrong ways, and Josh Gorges’ elbow most likely has some of Claude Giroux’s teeth in it after making contact with the Flyer’s head in the third period. As for the Flyers, Chris Pronger played his worst game as a Flyer in his brief career in Philadelphia thus far, Daniel Carcillo took a costly penalty in the first, and Arron Asham was repeatedly unsuccessful in trying to bait Montreal players into fisticuffs. In the end, the Canadiens won the physical battle, but the war is far from decided.
Would Halak hold up for the Canadiens tonight? Or had his time as a stellar netminder come and gone in these playoffs? I think those questions were put to rest early on, when the Flyers got a power play in the very beginning of the game, and Halak made some incredible stops to keep the crowd energized and his team in the game. He kept the game tight and eventually even allowed Montreal to pull away, making save after save in his first victory in the series. He nearly had a shutout, too, but Simon Gagne (who’s only scored seven times in seven games since returning from injury last round) beat him with a turn-around wrister that found the twine late in the third to make the score 4-1 at the time.
Would Montreal be able to tighten things up in the defensive zone and limit the lapses? Yes, and yes. Montreal was phenomenal in their own end tonight, as there seemed to be Canadiens on top of the Flyers each and every time a player in Orange and Black got the puck on his stick. Montreal blocked shots, and forced the Flyers repeatedly to the outside, taking away the Flyers’ customary offensive office: the goalmouth that sits in front of the twine guarded by Halak. The Flyers were unable to generate any screens in front of Halak, and failed to crash the net on a consistent basis. As a result, there weren’t any loose pucks sitting in the crease waiting to be smacked home like in games past. Instead, pucks simply sat in Halak’s glove, or snared up in his equipment, with no option for a rebound or second-chance opportunity.
How the hell would the Habs be able to beat Michael Leighton? The answer is quickly and often, a complete change-up from the past two games concerning the Flyers’ netminder. The Canadiens struck five times tonight against Leighton, who still made 33 saves in a losing effort, but was beaten by some unfortunate bounces. You can’t be incredible all the time and Michael Leighton, if anything else, proved that tonight. Leights is a confident guy, and I think the team will look for him to bounce back in a big way in Game Four. For the sake of the Flyers’ psyche before they head home to Philadelphia for Game Five, they certainly will need it.
For the Canadiens, Mike Cammalleri, Tom Pyatt, Dominic Moore, Brian Gionta, and Marc-Andre Bergeron all scored. Simon Gagne had the Flyers’ lone marker. Each game in this series has been decided by three or more goals. Does it mean another blow-out Saturday afternoon, or are we finally due for a tight one?