Saturday, May 15, 2010

High Three

Don't give the Philadelphia a high five; give them a high three.

Three has been their magic number to overcome, and they have overcome it in a way that is almost worthy of a holy trinity title. Three is the number of games that they were down in this series. Three is the number of goals that were scored on them in the opening round of this final game. And three is the number of teams that have come back from a 3 game deficit to win 4 in a row to take a playoffs series. Philadelphia is that number three in history, joining the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders back in more glorious times.

Return of the Conquering Hero

Just as Savard experienced a comeback victory in his first game back from injury, so did Simon Gagne. A latecomer to this series, many of the Flyers fans had lamented the loss of their star and thought that the end was near. And then, lo and behold, their conquering hero was back to defend their title and their place in the playoffs, to show the world that they did have a rightful reason to be in it. And the rest of the team reacted in kind, elevating their own game and finally leading the way to a great victory.

Bruised Bruins

Don't mention 3 to the Boston Bruins. Unlike the Flyers, this number was not their lucky one. 3 is the number of games that they were up in this series before crumbling to a loss, 3 is the period in which the fatal too many men call occurred, and 3 is the number of teams in NHL history to lose a 3 game lead in a playoffs series, which is now Boston.

Another great 3 to go with this? This too many men call was the 33rd which was called in this playoffs. An ominous sort of number when you think about it, as this number has the religious significance of being the age of Jesus when he was crucified, as well as being the number of Boston's Captain Zdeno Chara. This 33rd too many men call was the kiss of death for Boston, as the Flyers managed to break their 3-3 tie for a game winning 4th goal on a power play. The 3s are getting creepier as they pile up, so I'm going to stop this now.

History has a funny way of repeating itself, and Boston fell to its own history last night. The too many men call from last night's game was a mirror picture perfect image from one of their past games in which they ultimately lost another playoffs, also in the third period, also giving up a goal as a result.

Poor Boston. Someone better pull out the Boston archives to help out the team for next year and maybe change some of those 3s into more amenable numbers. Which probably sounds like the equivalent of calling the witch doctor in to see the team. Hey, whatever works.

What happened in this series? Well, Boston and Philadelphia play a very similar type of game. It's a gritty, physical, low-scoring affair with lots of hits on both sides, lots of fights in the dirty areas like down low in the corners, a fair bit of cycling and just generally, a no-frills, tough kind of game that's usually not pretty to watch. They're mules, let's face it, they work really hard and a lot of it is grunt work. Goal tending is consistent on both ends, a few spectacular saves are made and some soft shots make it in from weird angles or at weird speeds.

Injuries and penalties were big factors in this series. Benches were short at times and the re-appearance of stars definitely changed the pace. Some good supporting players came out, with Satan having one of the best runs of his career in this series. Lucic and Rask really came out for Boston, while Hartnell and Briere were the clutch players for Philadelphia alongside Gagne.

Penalties were just killers for both sides, as many of the goals did come with the man advantage. Surprisingly, Savard and Briere, two star players, were the most penalized in this series. The refs were keeping close tabs on those two, it seems, despite the fact that they don't take a lot of penalties during the regular season and neither one is known for questionable plays.

The Tortoise and the Hare

The best way to explain this series is through the tortoise and the hare myth. Boston leaped into this series with a dominating force and it looked to be a sweep for them. Philadelphia, on the other hand, went by the old mantra that slow and steady wins the race, and slowly gathered momentum in this series. The pieces came together for them one by one, with the return of Gagne and a smarter, more poised game which was adapted to the situation.

They didn't panic, they didn't give up, they switched up their game when they had to and proved to be very resilient. As their confidence level rose with each comeback win, so did the confidence of Boston erode. Simply put: Philadelphia outplayed them.

Flying High/ En bon esprit

Philadelphia is flying high and Montreal is en bon esprit. Both teams have a ton of confidence, a ton of momentum, a world of support, and have stunned critics with their feats. So who has the advantage? Well, it's hard to say.

Montreal looks like they can't be beat. Halak has been incredible for them and all of their players have stepped up. If their defense can all stay healthy and if nothing happens to Cammaleri, then there's no reason to believe that anything short of a freight train will stop this team. The city truly believes that they're a team of destiny this year and it's hard to argue the point.

Philadelphia has joined the ranks of NHL history with their comeback victory, and it's clear that they can advance as long as they keep it together, play a tight game and stay out of the box. Their 4 on 4 has not been strong lately, and this could be a disadvantage to them in this series. Their goalie has also been solid for them, but hasn't made the kind of highlight reel saves that Halak has. So advantage Montreal on those fronts.

One thing that could hurt Montreal is Philly's hard, physical game. The Habs may get a victory, but not without eating some board first. This is not a team that will give them the time and space that a careless and let's face it, just plain lazy, Washington and Pittsburgh defense gave them, nor will they back down in the dirty areas. And another possible obstacle? Philly's not the cleanest team in the league, so keep your eyes peeled for questionable plays.

If the reffing is sharp, this should not be a factor. I wouldn't trust that, though, considering a lot of the bad non-calls in the first round and I would ensure that EVERY team advancing to the next round practice too many men drills to avoid this kind of penalty. This is a dumb penalty to take and so many of them have been taken so far. It was funny at first, but now, it's getting to be an issue.

It's not that the refs just like calling more of these. It's that teams aren't communicating right. Excitement and noise level are both factors, but ultimately, these guys have to work on changing in an efficient manner. They have to tighten up this aspect of their game and remember that in the playoffs, everything counts.

So for Montreal: keep your eyes peeled, make sure that Lapierre lays off the theatrics, and be quick on your feet. Do not get caught with your head down under any circumstances and strike early on in the game. Philly's not an offensive team, so get on the board early and make them work their way out of the hole. Playing catch up will lead to desperation and desperation leads to sloppy play.

For Philly: stay out of the box, annoy Lapierre, and play the same hard physical game that you play against everyone. Do not leave Cammaleri alone on the ice and get a lot of traffic in front of Halak. That's the only way to beat him. He will out-wait you on a short handed rush, he will beat you short side, he will track you from the point. A shot through traffic and a quick redirect from the man on the crease is the magic formula.

This is going to be a scrappy, long, nail biting series. Just the way we like them.

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