The Montreal Canadiens are in the playoffs, and while that sounds absolutely insane to say after the 2019-20 season, it’s the current reality.
Now facing them is the Eastern Conference’s number-one seed, the Philadelphia Flyers. While the Habs as a team have plenty of their own stories that can be focused on, their matchup with the Flyers brings in plenty of drama and intrigue in its own right, so I pulled out a few storylines that I think are worth paying attention to when the puck drops on Wednesday night.
Habs vs. Therrien
Right from the outset, by far the most intriguing story to watch is that of former Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien behind the Flyers’ bench. In recent years the Habs had their highest peaks but also their most crushing lows under Therrien, whose tenure in and of itself is a controversial topic for Habs fans. The story really writes itself: The Canadiens and the fanbase want to prove they’re better off than when Therrien was fired, and Therrien no doubt wants to outlast his old team.
It’s not that there was a truly acrimonious split between the two sides, no harsh words or slander thrown around. It’s just the classic revenge series against a now twice-former coach. The Canadiens as a whole are doing well rebuilding and stocking up on prospects for long-term success, but haven’t hit the same levels of short-term success that Therrien did. The club made the playoffs in four of Therrien’s five full seasons behind the bench, due in large part to the Herculean efforts of Carey Price and P.K. Subban. Claude Julien took over in 2017 when Therrien was fired, lost in the first round, couldn’t find the same magic from Price, and looked to be missing the playoffs for the third straight year this season.
This storyline is all about proving this Habs team can do more than just rely on Carey Price like they used to do under their former bench boss, something they didn’t exacly escape from in the qualifiers.
Julien vs. Vigneault
There are plenty of coaching storylines to go around, and this one is of another former Canadiens coach facing off against his old club in the playoffs. The last time Julien and Alain Vigneault squared off in the post season was 2017, when Vigneault’s New York Rangers masterfully outplayed the Canadiens, ousting them unceremoniously in the first round. It stung on a lot of levels, and the off-season that followed help lead to this current rebuild.
It does go deeper than the Canadiens, however. Julien and Vigneault faced off in one of the most emotionally charged Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory. In 2011, the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins fought, bit, and maimed each other over a brutal seven-game series. With the feisty nature of the Flyers well known, and the Habs playing with a chip on their shoulder, one could expect a similar showing once again.
Another familiar face pops up in the Flyers’ lineup. Kindly Uncle Nate Thompson suits up in the orange and black of Philadelphia now. Part of the Canadiens’ deadline selling included Thompson being shipped out, which opened up a lineup spot for Jake Evans and Jordan Weal. If the Canadiens had any idea this was the situation they were going to be in, they’d have likely kept Thompson on their roster.
Julien hasn’t been able to find a truly stable fourth line without Thompson, who despite his limitations gave the Canadiens’ head coach a dependable option. Now the Canadiens face off against a beloved former teammate, and there’s plenty on the line.
It’s also a return to Philly for Dale Weise and Weal, but they say time heals all wounds, and it’s been a few years since either of them was a regular player in the Flyers’ lineup.
The Master vs. The Apprentice
In the lead-up to this series, Flyers goaltender Carter Hart has had plenty of praise for Price, and admitted to looking up to him as his hockey career blossomed. It’s almost cliché to point out it’s the old “young star rises up to take the torch from the old star” story, but it seems to be shaping up that way. Price was nothing short of incredible against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and that series would have looked entirely different with only an average netminding performance.
What we get now is a resurgent, rested, and highly motivated Price squaring off against one of the best rising stars between the pipes in Hart. Can the senior goalie use his years of experience to outfox the Flyers’ young upstart? Can Hart stand in the spotlight against a team like the Canadiens that typically launched a lot of shots?
For fans of goalies, this matchup is a dream for them as both Hart and Price are amazing in so many aspects of their games. The winner of this series is more than likely going to owe a lot to its netminder.
Demons of 2010
Okay, so this one might be a bit more a stretch, but bear with me as I explain my reasoning here. It’s been a decade since the Canadiens shocked the NHL with a pair of playoff upsets over the Washington Capitals and Penguins. They did so on the back of an absolutely insane showing from Jaroslav Halak and by taking advantage of their opponents’ momentary lapses in play. Is this sounding familiar?
So they made the Eastern Conference Final that year, and despite outplaying the Flyers almost ironically could not find a save if their lives depended on it. Now, 10 years later, on the back of a strong goalie showing, have upset the Penguins, and now have a showdown with the Flyers. The only player left from that series is a now grizzled Price, but all the same it would be something if the Habs avenged their crushing playoff end from 2010 in this bizarre post-season.