The Montreal Canadiens have been down this road before: heavy underdogs against the top seed in the format they are in. The Canadiens have said they are fine being the underdog, and almost everyone who has spoken to the media since the matchup was set has been praising the Philadelphia Flyers.
If you listened to the last episode of Habsent Minded, you’ll know why I want to bring you back to the 2012-13 season. That year, a Canadiens team that missed the playoffs the season before hired a new coach who previously made a Stanley Cup final, and overcame a months-long break to win the division in a shortened season.
The 2019-20 Flyers missed the playoffs a year ago. They hired Alain Vigneault, who had been a Stanley Cup finalist before. They rose to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and that’s where they would have been if a months-long break due to COVID-19 had not necessitated a round robin for seeding. The Flyers swept their three games, and find themselves in a position to be the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
You know that the Canadiens, incidentally coached by one of Vigneault’s assistants, Michel Therrien, lost to the Ottawa Senators and never made it past the first round.
Now, I’m not comparing the two teams. Philadelphia does seem like a deeper team than even those Canadiens were, and Montreal had a long list of players playing injured or who were too hurt to play through the series. But that ascent from afterthought to favourite is not an easy rise.
These teams need to prove themselves. Having said that, it’s entirely possible that this talented Flyers team led by a veteran coach will easily dispatch the Canadiens. But the fact that the franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 2012 means that there may be an opening to exploit. There isn’t the history of success that the other round-robin teams — or even the Pittsburgh Penguins — had. That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. The Flyers are still the heavy favourites and should be expected to move on in the most likely scenario. However, we don’t know how they will react to being the favourite. After all, the Canadiens just won a post-season series last week against a team that finished three points behind the Flyers.
In 2017, Claude Julien had no answer for Vigneault’s New York Rangers. Some point to his inability to react to the Rangers’ forecheck (which just happens to be similar to the system he is using with the Flyers) as proof that Julien lost his ability to adapt.
Let’s put that series into perspective. The break between the regular season and the post-season in 2019-20 was longer than the amount of time Julien was in charge of the Canadiens before that series against the Rangers.
The Flyers are a better team than the Penguins, and may not be beaten the same way. However, Montreal proved that they have depth of their own, and beat Pittsburgh without any goals from their four top scorers.
The Canadiens will have to rely on players who helped them get through the Penguins, namely Artturi Lehkonen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and, of course, Carey Price. They all provided big goals or saves at the right time.
You don’t win a series without players stepping up, and there are many options for breakout performances against the Flyers. Whether the Canadiens get them again will likely decide how long their stay in the playoffs will be.