Please note that this blog is now on: http://prosportsblogging.com/all-sports/the-battle-that-was-not/
A ton for Leighton
A ton of credit is due to Michael Leighton of the Philadelphia Flyers for shutting down the Montreal Canadiens for the second game of the series. His incredible run in this series has shown that he is the real deal in a clutch. Claimed from waivers and trucked from one team to another and quickly approaching his 29th birthday (which in the NHL is something close to your 50th), bouncing back from injury and being replaced by Brian Boucher, Michael Leighton might be the best comeback story since Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins. Whether or not he's as good, well, that remains to be seen, but there's still a lot more hockey to be played and more chances for him to prove it.
The goaltending battle between the Montreal Canadiens and the Philedelphia Flyers was another example of the battle that wasn't. It seemed like Halak had the clear advantage coming into this series, riding high from magnifique victories over offensive powerhouses, Washington and Pittsburgh. You don't shut out the two greatest young stars of your generation without feeling a little good abot yourself. And Halak had plenty of reason for that coming into this series.
Leighton, on the other hand, was riding high on a historic comeback victory for his team. But this comeback victory was clearly a team one and it didn't appear that Leighton was going to be THE factor for the next. But has he ever been THE factor.
Since this series with Montreal opened, the Canadiens have not been able to figure out Leighton. He's been playing a good, consistent game and has not been too fancy in the net. He's gotten some great grab saves and has done a good job of staying big and seeing over players, even through traffic.
On paper, these two teams were more or less evenly matched with a similar style of game. On paper, Halak was cleary the star goalie and Leighton was good enough to get by. In reality, this is not what is happening right now.
What I thought was going to be a close, nailbiting series has ended up being a far and away seatsinker. A seatsinker is one of those series where the competition level is so heavily favoured on one side, that all you can do is sink in your seat and wait for it to be over. In terms of the battle for the Cup, this is a battle that wasn't.
Brother vs. Brother
No, this is not an instalment of the ever-increasing Staal brothers series, although it will be great to see what happens when two Staal brothers take on another now that Jared has joined Eric in Carolina. No, this civil war is being played out between the French.
Briere and Gagne have doubled up to do some serious damage against the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens, traditionally a French Canadian team with a strong tradition of having home grown heroes, may be faced with that strange situation of being beaten by a US team which is more French than they are. While I'm not an advocate for French or Quebecois interests, I find this both ironic and sort of sad. There's something so great about the homegrown hero who can speak to the crowd in both official languages and who knows where Shawinigan is. There's also something really touching about the level of pride that they inspire, both in the team and within the crowd.
But identification, for better or worse, is often not a factor in these debates. What interests players most is the best deal, the most money, and the best chance at a Cup. Wonder what Briere thinks of his chances now. Whatever he may think, we alreayd know what a certain city thinks of that.
Putting the Fan back in Fantastic
Booing and jeering will be huge in this series. Philadelphia and Montreal are not known for having the kindest fan bases and that's putting it lightly. We sometimes forget that fans are the short form of fanatics, which is another way of stating that someone is looney tunes. In Spanish, they are los fanaticos. The Spanish know better than to mince words on this one. Philly and Montreal both have fanaticos.
Philly has already set a bad precedent by mockingly singing Montreal's Ole Ole song. Montreal has been known in the past to boo the US anthem, a tribute to their long standing anti-American tradition. Rioting and violence are also not uncommon for both cities. The mayors of these two respective cities are probably going to hide underneath their desks until this series is over. Who can blame them?
Time for a Change
With this series making its way to Montreal, it's time for some changes in Montreal's strategy. One thing that has to change for sure is the traffic in front of Philly's net. Yes, the Canadiens managed to get the traffic going, but it wasn't the right kind. Leighton is a big guy. You need to get big bodies in front of him. No offense to Gionta, but Leighton made a big save in the air simply by looking over his head. If that had been Moen standing there, it would have been a different story.
Another thing that has to change is the discipline of this team. They have to calm down and keep it together. Philadelphia scored on two power plays and Montreal cannot afford to give them the man advantage. Don't take selfish penalties. Play a good, hard, clean game. They've paid for this mistake already twice in this series. Let's hope that they learned.
The one thing that doesn't need to change? Halak. Do not open the goalie debate again. Halak is still Montreal's best player. What he really needs is for Montreal's defense to stop screening him and creating chances up high for Philly. Philly has figured out Halak's style and knows better than to go down low with him. Like most goalies formed in Montreal, they are generally good down low. This is part of the reason why Pittsburgh lost their series; they kept trying to jam it shortside like they expected him to just panic and fall. This didn't happen.
The other thing that would help Halak? Some offense. Nobody should expect miracles from their goalies if they don't put a few away for him in return.
It may still happen that Price will get the start in Montreal, which makes me want to sink in my seat even more and tell the person next to me to wake me up when it's over. Maybe they believe that they'll get different results with Price, but my guess is that Philly will figure him out too. And considering what an emotional player he is, I'm guessing that someone's mother is going to be called something and all heck will break loose.
Another thing that isn't quite working for Montreal is their forecheck. While they did manage to deliver some good hits and even punish a few of the Flyers, it generally looks like the Flyers are swatting them away like fruitflies. This is not just a size jab. Montreal needs to make better use of its forecheck and figure out WHO needs to be checked. Their coverage on Gagne and Briere has to improve.
And they should be taking advantage of Pronger and Carcillo. Pronger is a valuable player because of the amount of ice time he puts in. Taking him out for awhile would put more pressure on the rest of the bench. Carcillo is a highly emotional player and it's not that hard to push his buttons. He can be goaded into taking dumb penalties and giving Montreal some chances.
Then there's the coaching. A ton of credit to Laviolette for his hands-on, keep-calm approach to his team. It's refreshing to see a coach who doesn't look like his top vein in his forehead is about to blow or who's chewing gum so ferociously you're actually afraid that they may have no tongue at the end of the series. Laviolette talks to his players a lot and has strategic timeouts for rest and encouragement. That's the type of person you want to work hard for and get results for and I bet that entire bench wants to see the tears in his eyes if they ever win the Cup together. And that's not a far fetched idea.
Montreal is going to have to claw its way back in this series with more discipline, more strategic checks, and more adaptable play. They're going to have to find a way to get more chances, unclog the neutral zone and play a tight defense on the guys that they need to watch the most. Otherwise, their euphoric playoffs run is going to crash and burn.