In any hockey series that is yet to be concluded, trends are important and extremely telling. A playoff round is not often about where it has been, and not neccessarily about what has occurred.
A yet to be completed series is all about where it is headed.
Clues as to how a series is proceeding is found in trends evident in the most recent game.
With a solid showing and a 5-1 win Thursday night, the Canadiens are gaining precious ground on the Flyers, and judging by the Philadelphia players reactions, they know it.
Exhibit One would be the Flyers power play.
Philadelphia ruled in the series opener's 6-0 win because their man advantage was dominant and the Canadiens were ill prepared and sent reeling. The blowout loss was useful to Montreal, in regards that it gave them much to look over and observe. By Game Two, corrections were already underway.
Over the three games of the series, Montreal have not only reduced the number of power play opportunities given to the Flyers (from 6 to 4 to 3) but they have also become more adept and less panicked in countering it.
Exhibit Two involves discipline.
In Game's One and Two, Montreal got into trouble early thanks to a pair of undisciplined Scott Gomez calls that lead to Flyer goals. Playing catch up hockey on the road is always a challenge, and the Canadiens started both games behind the proverbial 8 ball.
In Game Three, the Flyers were once again gifted with a power play thanks to hockey's lamest penalty - a puck over the glass delay of game call on Ryan O'Byrne 27 seconds in. This time out the Canadiens killed it off. Buoyed perhaps by the home crowd, and likely more atuned to what the Flyers do with a man advantage, the Habs survived the penalty kill.
From there on, they gave the Flyers only two more powerplays, the second coming when the score was 2-0, and the third went it was 4-0.
Exhibit Three is the Canadiens scoring chances.
Everyone agrees that shots on goal can be a misleading statistic, as they do not neccessarily equate scoring chances. But what shot counts do equate, are opportunities to have created something if properly executed. It has always been my theory that every shot on goal begins as a scoring chance, and that it is either followed through with commitment, or abandoned and uncapitalized upon for a variety of reasons.
Simply stated, a shot on goal without a player going to the net does not have the same worth of a shot directed at the goal with a player in position to pounce on the rebound.
In the series so far, the Canadiens have outshot the Flyers 28 to 25, 30 to 23 and 38 to 28.
Now scoring chances aside, there are several notable trends in these bare numbers alone.
The Canadiens have contained the Flyers to between 23 and 28 shots per game, while increasing their own shot totals over three games from 28 to 38.
In Game Three, the Canadiens fired their highest shot totals thus far, and Michael Leighton surrendered five goals. The Flyers also managed more shots on goal in the third game, yet Jaroslav Halak and the players fortifying him reacted with their most composed resilience.
Of course, these could simply be surface takes, but the Canadiens numbers have increased because they are doing a much better job of going to the net.
And, as importantly, they are doing it as a team. Three lines scored goals for the Canadiens, including two goals from the club's third line, which has arguably been its best line going to the net.
Exhibit Four is the nasty and and helter skeltered counting of turnovers.
I'll explain a little. In Game Three, the Canadiens were credited with 7 giveaways while the Flyers were dinged with six. Now we all watched the game. Is that number not low?
I once sat with pen and paper, columns at the ready, counting turnovers during a game, and came up with close to triple the NHL counted total. What I deduced from that experience was that the league counts only direct, stick to stick giveaways that are forced within a team's defensive zone. They do not count puck dumps into neutral territory, clearings that surpass the blueline, or include times when a team is battled and beaten for puck possession after they have lost it.
I did not do counts for Game Three, but the Flyers gave puck possession up so often, they could have their own theme song if it continues. In fights for loose pucks, Philly were badly outplayed, and if you did not see Flyers' coach Laviolette reprimand his rearguards early on, you missed a defining series moment.
With four exhibits presented, but the case far from closed, here's the deal.
Verdict - after three games.
Where all four exhibits come into play, goes back to the notion of trends. The Canadiens are gaining ground on the Flyers as the series progresses.
Montreal has learned to counter the Flyers power play that gave Philly a big win in Game One, and enabled the Game Two Victory.
The more disciplined game of the Canadiens is allowing for less Flyers chances by game on the PP, forcing games to be won five on five.
The Habs have burst the Leighton bubble by creating more scoring chances, and capitalizing on them. The testament is the Game Three score.
Canadiens players forced the Flyers to make mistakes and cause turnovers. The Habs were so adept at this, Philly's best blueliner became their weakest link. It is bad news for Philly when the score in the game is 4-0 for Montreal and Chris Pronger is minus 4. Two of those minuses came with Pronger on the ice against the Canadiens third line.
What makes all this evidence coalesce into a trend was made possible through the Canadiens use of their greatest asset and biggest advantage over the Flyers - team speed.
Montreal are faster than the Flyers, and size won't matter if size cannot catch speed.
More scoring chances for Montreal, and more penalty calls on the Flyers are a trend.
As the series progresses and the Canadiens become more disciplined, the prominence of the Flyers power play regresses.
As the series progresses, the Canadiens are learning to waste less shots on goal with more presence heading toward the Philly net.
As the series progresses, Montreal is showing they have more strides left in their legs as games drag on. Before the end of this series, Philadelphia will not become a faster skating team than the Canadiens.
Perhaps the best news of all for the Habs is that the Flyers are already showing signs of being flustered and frustrated, even while maintaining the series lead.
This, after one loss.
Tough to gauge what Philly has left in their tank, but it comes back to telltale signs.
In Game Three, the Flyers were behind by a noticeable step. Traditionally, hockey clubs wear as the long season grinds down.
More on this come 6 p.m. Saturday, when the series is deadlocked at two games apiece.