Monday, May 17, 2010

Great and Not So Great Expectations

What we expected...

The San Jose-Chicago series is more or less exactly what I expected. Two fairly well matched teams with a fast pace and a tight game. No clear advantage really goes to either team at this point, because they're both contenders. Goal tending is solid on both sides, defense is consistent, and goal scoring, when it happens, is generally a thing of beauty.

There have been the stinky goals in the past for San Jose, but they seem to have gotten over those bumps, and it looks like they're going to put on a great show. Chicago can always rely on its stars (Toews, Kane, Sharp) to rack it up. Both teams have good momentum and are playing with lots of confidence.

San Jose's stars need to up their game if they want to win this series. Chicago's players don't seem to know the meaning of the words playoffs slump, so they're going to have to get it together pretty fast so as not to find themselves in a hole.

The Sunday game could have gone either way. It was a low-scoring affair, but an intense game with a dynamic pace. No slackers on either side. There will be more of the same to come, and if San Jose's stars don't shine, the Blackhawks may just walk away with it. But San Jose's a hungry team. They haven't made it this far in a long time and it would surprise me if they slowed down after having beaten down Detroit.

The only thing that may be unnerving about this series is the feeling of lockjaw. Most people will say that a true competition is one in which the competitors are evenly matched. While this is true, it can also end up looking like the battles using the force in Star Wars where lots of blue lights get thrown around, but not much else happens. Someone's going to have to win or lose eventually. In this case, though, it may take plenty of overtimes to get there and lots of one point games.

Expect a long series. If this doesn't go to a game 7, I'd be pretty surprised. Keeping my calendar open just in case.

What we didn't expect...

Low-scoring affairs are the norm for teams with a highly defensive game style and very little offensive powerhouse names. So the Montreal-Philadelphia match up should have been just that. A 2-1 game, maybe, with the game-winning goal occurring sometime in the second period before a highly defense-centric third period to protect the lead.

So what in the world happened? How did the team of destiny, Montreal, lose its momentum? How did Halak go from unbeatable to interchangeable with Price? Who lit the fire under the Flyers butts? Could it be that one team of destiny outdid the other, now that it's taken its place in history as the 3rd team to make it back from a 3-0 hole?

Philadelphia scored more goals in last night's 6-0 victory over Montreal than it probably has in any game this season. The triumphant return of Simon Gagne has been a major factor, along with Briere's stellar performance. It's almost like Briere opened his eyes the other day and realized he was still in the playoffs. He hasn't shown that kind of spirit in a long time.

Montreal seems to have lost some of its focus. Highly undisciplined play led to a lot of power plays for Philly which ultimately led to really good chances and multiple goals. The Flyers have figured out Halak for sure, not because there's anything wrong with Halak's game, but simply because it's not possible to stop what you can't see. Philly had the defense scurrying around like mice in their end, and created traffic jams as thick as the bridge traffic to the Ile Montreal, and they got the better of them.

Philly has done what Pittsburgh and Washington couldn't do: create consistent swarms around the blue paint. They bait the defense and cycle the puck well. They don't cycle around in perfect formation so that they can create a perfect V and get the highlight reel goal which is beautiful and tactical. They just work really hard, winning puck battles in all of the dirty areas, getting in around the boards, getting down low, forechecking hard and fighting for every single inch of ice. They made Montreal look slow and tired, and that's no doubt how they felt as the goals kept piling up.

Philadelphia doesn't play a beautiful hockey game. They play a hard, gritty, workhorse style of game and they will wear their opponent down into the ground. Montreal has to show some of its resilience and gather their best strength, both mental and physical, if they want to beat this team. They will also have to make sure to not screen their own goalie. They are just as responsible for some of those goals through traffic as the Flyers.

If Philadelphia wants to win, which they very clearly do, they will have to keep up this level of play and keep calm, just as they did in their series against the Bruins. They'll have to keep fighting hard and checking hard, which they will do, because they will battle right up until the end. Laviolette is doing a great job of keeping their spirits high and their game focused.

If Montreal wants to win, they will have to be just as opportunistic as they've been against Pittsburgh and Washington and get in the right places to score. Cammaleri has an uncanny ability to do this, but he will have to cycle harder against this bullish defense to do so. Montreal will also have to play a more disciplined game and not take selfish penalties and try to incite something with the more emotional players on the Flyers bench, such as Carcillo.

Philadelphia put on an unbelievable show. But Montreal did it to themselves in many ways. We hope that they've learned from this first game how to switch things up and who to go after.

Let's see which Montreal comes out to play on Tuesday. And someone set Heatley and Thorton's alarm clocks. They're needed in the shark tank.

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