Through improbable circumstances, the Montreal Canadiens found themselves in a qualifying-round match up with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Standout goaltending, a massive performance from the defence, and some timely goals from depth players saw them pull off a shocking upset. Their reward was a first-round playoff series with the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, another tall task for Claude Julien’s team.
The Canadiens’ lineup stayed the same as it was for their Game 4 triumph against Pittsburgh, with Ryan Poehling and Cale Fleury taking warmups, but not replacing any of the regulars. The Flyers got a huge boost with Jakub Voracek returning to their starting lineup, adding another weapon to their forward group. Between the pipes it was Carey Price staring down Carter Hart in a goalie battle for all ages.
While the Canadiens started stronger than they did against Pittsburgh, the first major chance of the game came to the Flyers. A Brett Kulak point shot went around the boards and evaded Jeff Petry, creating a two-on-one rush. Kevin Hayes waited a bit too long to feed a pass across, Kulak blocked the passing lane, and Hayes’s pass went into the far corner harmlessly.
Both teams continued their feeling-out process as the game approached the midway mark of the first period, however a Jonathan Drouin slash sent Philly to the game’s first power play.
While Montreal fended off the opening waves of the Flyers’ attack, the opposing power play broke through shortly before the advantage ended. Ivan Provorov loaded up a shot at the point, and let it fly. At the point of attack, Paul Byron reached out with his stick, turning the shot into a knuckle puck that squeaked under Price’s arm for the opening goal of the series.
The Habs nearly tied it up with Artturi Lehkonen getting a stellar look on a break through the Flyer defence. Lehkonen split the two defenders, and when in alone on Hart tried to slide a backhand shot through the five-hole, but couldn’t solve Hart, or the far goal post which the shot trickled just past. Montreal finally began to grow into the game, breaking out of their own zone with authority and creating offence around Hart. A Kulak-led rush created a massive pileup around the Flyers’ net, but the Habs weren’t able to jam a loose puck past Hart in his crease.
From there the period took a not-unpredictable turn to the shenanigan side of things. Xavier Ouellet, caught on a bad line change, threw Derek Grant into Price, which in turn nearly caused Price to decapitate him with his blocker. Then, after Shea Weber blasted James van Riemsdyk with a hit, the Flyers’ innumerable pests made a mess of things, creating a massive scrum that led to Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Travis Konecny getting matching minor penalties to start the second period.
With the second period starting at four-on-four, the Canadiens took advantage of all the extra space to create their first big offensive push of the night. Kulak and Lehkonen buzzed the zone to create a handful of chances. The pressure didn’t end there as a line led by Nick Suzuki kept the Flyers on their heels, and Brendan Gallagher nearly slammed home a wraparound chance, but Hart stood tall to best the Habs’ attack.
Then, in some horrible, almost comedic luck, Lehkonen failed to capitalize on two more chances. First he was denied by a great Hart save, then on a two-on-zero rush he tripped, fell on his butt and couldn’t even get a pass off with Ben Chiarot following alongside him. The Canadiens pressure continued to pile up, however, throwing off the Flyers in a big way in the first half of the second period. It seemed like a goal was almost inevitable given their level of play.
Then it was Price saving the day in the most improbable way possible. He bit hard to take a shot away from Hayes, sliding away from his net, and Konecny held up, then dropped a pass to Hayes, who in turn sent it to Scott Laughton with a wide-open net. Suzuki dared to jump in front of the shot head-first, but it was a diving stick save from Price that sent the puck out of play, miraculously saving a second Flyers goal, and his young centre in the process.
A Flyers penalty threatened to derail the Habs’ momentum, but for the first time in forever the Canadiens’ power play clicked into gear. Shea Weber uncorked a bomb from the blue line, and that created a scrum in front of Hart. Out of that, Jonathan Drouin poked the puck loose, and Weber jumped up into the play to slam it home.
The joy was short-lived as the Flyers came right back down the ice and Joel Farabee put home a second Philadelphia goal to take all the wind out of the Habs’ sails. Montreal didn’t let it hold them back all that much, pushing for another goal in the dying minutes of the period, but coming up just short as the intermission horn sounded.
The third period didn’t hold much of anything to start, but Max Domi drew Farabee into an off-setting minor penalty, opening up the ice for the Canadiens’ up-tempo attack to try to find a second goal. It wasn’t to be as a penalty allowed the Flyers to get another chance on the power play, this time a four-on-three advantage. The Habs’ penalty-killers stood strong, with Phillip Danault’s diving stick poke denying the Flyers a goal in tight, while Price snagged pucks with relative ease out of the air.
They’d have to repeat that showing once again, with Ben Chiarot being called for a hook in front of the Montreal net. The Flyers’ attack never really got a chance to set up due to the Habs’ pressure, and their best chance came after the advantage expired when Nate Thompson shoveled his shot across the face of the open net and out the other side.
With Price on the bench, the Canadiens almost found a last-gasp goal from their offence. Suzuki took a feed, walked into the face-off circle, and wired a beautiful shot off the crossbar but it deflected away from the net. The Flyers held the fort for the remaining few seconds, escaping by the skin of their teeth with a 2-1 win.
These teams clash again on Friday with a 3:00 PM EDT start time — assuming no games get postponed by multiple overtimes and push that start back.