The drama has been intense to this point, but the matchup in the East is finally set. After defeating Mathias (PIT) and his roster of all-star forwards in 6 games, Bill (PHI) will move on to face Sergio in Montreal for the Eastern Conference Championship. Let's break down some numbers and look inside the series to come...
HOW THEY GOT HERE:
Montreal beat Buffalo in 5
Montreal beat Carolina in 6
While it never really felt like Montreal was in danger of bowing out in the first round, the second round presented a much different scenario. Carolina, run by Larry Marks, had a very solid, if not explosive, roster. With top end talent like Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman, as well as a lot of depth, there really wasn't a lot of weak spots on the roster to exploit. The second round series started off close, then took a wild turn, as Carolina's goalies melted down in convincing fashion. Robin Lehner, who is probably back on the sauce after his performance, sported a 3.94GAA for the playoffs. Not good. Brian Elliott had a respectable effort in relief, but it wasn't enough to turn a 3-0 hole into a 7 game series.
Montreal displayed impressive defensive control throughout the playoffs and the numbers largely bare that out. Of the remaining playoff teams, Montreal has the fewest goals against (27), the fewest goals allowed per game (2.45) and the best PK (95%). Beyond that, Sergio has been known to be a very solid defensive player for many years and this year he's also getting top flight goaltending from Ben Bishop, which makes it even harder for the opposition.
Philadelphia beat Toronto in 4
Philadelphia beat Pittsburgh in 6
For a long time the GM of Philadelphia was telling whoever would listen that he knew round 1 would come against Toronto and if he advanced, round 2 would be against what is arguably the best offensive squad the VHA has ever seen. James, in Toronto, had multiple cup wins and even with a depleted roster, due to a partial rebuild, there was no chance he would go quietly. Philadelphia's roster simply outclassed Toronto, exploiting the depth advantage and rolling over the Leafs. In spite of the fact that the games were competitive, the Flyers won and then were rewarded by going from a team that had guys like Kyle Clifford in scoring roles to facing a team that had Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Brad Marchand, Leon Draisaitl and David Pastrnak weaving in and out of the zone like the Harlem Globetrotters of the hockey.
The disparity of the rosters was massive and Pittsburgh jumped out to a 1-0 lead almost right away. Carter Hart was pretty steadily outplayed in the first two games, but Anton Khudobin managed to come in during game 2 and steal a in Pittsburgh. In what ended up being one of the all time great series in VHA history, eventually Philadelphia managed to outproduce Pittsburgh's offence by forcing turnovers and finding a few weak goals on Matt Murray along the way. Philly's big guns showed up and so did Pittsburgh's, but the difference ended up being a few timely turnovers produced by the bottom half of Philly's lineup and a lack of big saves by Pittsburgh's goaltending, specifically on OT powerplays, where Philly scored twice.
Philadelphia has displayed a very different approach to these playoffs. Where Philly has typically been very good defensively, they're now scoring at a much higher pace than previous playoff years. Philly has the highest goals per game (3.9) of any remaining team and the best powerplay at 31.6%. The defense has been acceptable, but they've allowed more goals per game than any team remaining (2.9) and have the 2nd worst PK at 72.7%. Has their defense and goaltending been significantly worse than other teams or is it simply a factor of having played 2 outstanding GMs prior to this point? We'll soon find out if they can hold up vs Montreal, who bounced them out of the playoffs last year in a 7 game series.
WHO TO WATCH:
Pierre-Luc Dubois: He has 10pts and a French name, so naturally he's gonna shine in Montreal. Rumor is he does all his postgame interviews in French and the media loves him for it.
Nick Backstrom: A staple at 1C for years, who has 9pts in this run, but also has an injury making him day to day. Could be a monster loss in the short term, but will be back when it matters.
Johnny Gaudreau: A Philly native who is unnaturally displaced in Montreal. He desperately wants a hoagie in Philly, but has 9pts and has to lay off the carbs to stay small and quick or he's in trouble.
Cam Atkinson: With 8pts in the playoffs, Cam is the most famous Cam in hockey since Cam Barker blew out his ankles and went on his 10 year European vacation (where apparently you don't need ankles)
Filip Forsberg: He's got 7pts, a power forward's frame and great hair. What's not to like? Also, he will always be the guy that got traded for Martin Erat, like Nashville had some dirty photos on the WAS GM.
Ben Bishop was acquired by Montreal from Washington, as Riley continues to build the roster he drafted as the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights. In Washington, Bishop seemed to have pedestrian numbers, but after arriving in Montreal and jumping into the 2nd season, Bishop has been on fire. With a 2.18GAA and .925SV%, Bishop was the difference for Montreal in round 2. He effectively shut down a fairly explosive attack and rarely gave up any weak goals. It's safe to say that had the goaltending not been such a huge win for Montreal in round 2, there could have been a significantly closer series.
Anze Kopitar: If you know a more famous Slovenian in the NHL I'll give you a nickel. Kopitar has been very good throughout the playoffs and now has 13pts, leading Philadelphia.
TJ Oshie: Mr. Big goal. King of the international shootouts? Excessive pounder of celebratory beers? Whatever you want to call him, he's got 11pts and has been a huge addition in Philly this year.
Mike Hoffman: I don't know if his girlfriend has threatened to kill anyone lately, but he's sure played well (specifically in the Pittsburgh series) and he's got 11pts to boot.
Ivan Provorov: At first he was gone and then he was back, then gone and then back. It's safe to say Ivan is back with VHA Philly to stay. He's got 9pts from D and a few big goals too.
Alex Radulov: Sure, he doesn't have the good looks or great hair of a Filip Forsberg, but he's got 8pts and he loves the game. Isn't that enough? Also hasn't gone on a bender for a while and loves cheesesteaks.
The line of Clayton Keller, William Nylander and Nick Foligno. When you have to match line 1 and 2 vs the likes of Crosby, Kane, Draisaitl, Marchand and Pasta, the only way you win a series is with fantastic goaltending or by winning the battles vs lower lines. Philadelphia's "Lil Bit of Jiggle" line managed to play a more straight forward game and intercept pucks in the offensive zone and force key turnovers. Usually known for their stickhandling and offensive abilities, this line occasionally managed to shut down and occupy line 1 and 2 vs the Penguins and scored key goals whenever they created those turnovers. Without the goals of Keller and Nylander in games 2-6, Philadelphia might have found themselves in a game 7, or worse.
I don't make predictions about who will win and lose in any series that I'm involved in. What I will say is that I think this series will look very different than any series either of these teams has played so far in this playoff year. Montreal can score, but they also play defense much differently than Pittsburgh or Toronto and they will sometimes choose to lock down a game. Philadelphia can score, but I think they're pretty unlikely to do so at the rate they've been scoring (almost 4 goals a game) vs Bishop and Montreal.
On the Montreal side, it's almost been too easy. I mean no disrespect to Carolina, because they're a great team with a good GM, but their goaltending was so bad that Montreal felt like they were always in control vs Buffalo and Carolina. The disparity in goaltending is not likely to be as large and Montreal will likely have to face some adversity and overcome it in order to advance. Philadelphia has been tested...hard. They've seen there adversity already and know where their game has to go to win. They've also been erased from the playoffs by Sergio and Montreal once in recent memory and they're likely to want to avenge that defeat in a big way.
KEYS TO THE SERIES:
1) Can Ben Bishop stay hot
2) Surviving the Nick Backstrom injury
3) Responding to adversity
1) Can Khudobin hold Philly in it while Hart is out
2) Continuing to utilize depth scoring
3) Maintaining a red hot PP vs the playoff's best PK team