The last few nights have been luxurious. I haven't even played a second, haven't had to block one of 320 shots, and I appreciated a rest from the playoff onslaught. The Montreal fans I met and shared drinks with last night all felt the same. Some time off was welcome, a weekend without two hockey games a chance to remember real life.
I can only imagine that it was 100 times better for the players. Grab some time at home, see the kids, watch a movie, skip the media for a day or two.
Back to the grindstone today though.
Last night, I encountered a lot of trepidation for this upcoming series. Many times, I was asked the same question: "Which team would I have preferred for the Canadiens opponent?"
Each time, I answered the same way: "The team that lost".
A playoff series is a trying for any team. A 7-game series is a true test of any team's mettle. In my humble opinion, any team that can beat the same opponent 4 times in such a short span deserves to at least receive the credit they deserve for that win.
Coming into this series, both Montreal and Philadelphia are getting less than value for what they have done till now. Though Boston may have collapsed, it was Philly sticking with the task and staying out of the box that paved the way to victory. Forgotten, already in the shadow of their historic comeback is they beat many peoples' number one Eastern team (the Devils) very handily with a makeshift goaltending team. Montreal too has been questioned. Beating Pittsburgh the way they did still not worthy enough to earn them credit for their Washington victory.
But it doesn't matter. New Jersey, Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh are behind. Montreal and Philadelphia are worthy contenders for the Eastern crown because they are standing. Even if we can't quite explain how or why.
As I look forward and try to predict a series outcome, I find it difficult. The series till now offer little guidance. Philly has shown the ability to overcome trapping with goaltending, but that doesn't make them stand out from Washington or Pittsburgh as opponents. Montreal has pounced on rickety defences for timely scoring, but haven't yet had need, real need to make Plan Bs on attack.
The season series isn't much help either. 2-2 all told. Philly boosters look to February's back-to-back to say Montreal is outclassed, but conveniently overlook Game 4, the playoff clinching (in retrospect) 1-0 shutout from Halak.
It's an interesting series, and far from predictable. Let's consider the matchups:
Montreal has Halak. So far the best goalie in the playoffs, one of the best in the season. Has won in pressure games, has stoned Ovechkin, Malkin, Crosby and Backstrom.
Philadelphia had a charmed run from Boucher, but now must rely on Michael Leighton. It was Boucher that won the shootout to attain the playoffs and overcame Parise and Kovalchuk. Leighton so far has been great, but one wonders if the anemia of Boston's attack, and overcoming Satan and Recchi (in 2010, not 1998) means a little less than what Halak has put forward.
My edge here goes to Montreal. Anyone who has ever written off a goalie (ahem) will know that the edge is often les than it seems.
Montreal has has allowed so many shots that stats bashers are having fits. The fact it is systematic troubles some even more. Still, letting a goalie see shots and clearing rebounds has been the priority since Game 5 in Washington and it's been taken on board as the priority. Gill has been an obstruction machine while the whistles are away, and should still be. Gorges, Spacek and co. also pretty good at what they do.
Philadelphia has been impressive in this regard. Against NJ, the corps allowed only a single ES goal against in their 4 wins. Pronger's name gets mentioned a lot, but Montreal mustn't overlook Timonen who drew the big assignments two years ago and blanketed Koivu to little acclaim.
Even with a Markov return, Philly has the edge here. Their lack of penalties against Boston shows why building around obstructers like Pronger, Carle, Coburn and Timonen works if you can make the playoffs on a shootout. Though I think there's something to Martin's use of his staff on D, I can't shake the feeling I'd like those bigger bodies when the whistles are buried.
Montreal has 2.5 lines spread over three lines for scoring. Gionta, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn are real threats, while Gomez, Plekanec and Lapierre have found ways to get things done. The defensive play of the forwards is top notch, and shouldn't be forgotten.
Philly has shooters and star power. Richards is a big-game player. Briere and Gagne are earning their money and the supporting cast have goals in them.
Without Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere in the lineup, the Flyers depth is tested. The match-up is close. If Pouliot ever awoke, this would be a Montreal edge. However, even as a staunch supporter, I've stopped waiting for that. The same could be said for Philly with a return from injury or a new scorer emerging. Until then, this is a push.
By tally that's even in my mind. My thought is that these two teams, both winners in 5 precipice games so far (if you include making the playoffs) aren't here to make up numbers.
Though I'd love to relish a Canadiens victory over a weekend off from hockey watching duties in a couple of weeks, both teams behaviours so far point to a pitched battle.
On a final note, I'd like to offer a word to the know-it-alls who grace the panel TV shows. The idea that this series is all for naught, and that SJ and Chicago are playing for the Cup starting this week is insulting. It's insulting to the players, as it is to we who watch. While it's true that both Montreal and Philly will both be underdogs because of points accumulated, the reporters would do well to remember that both Eastern outfits were among their precious predictions for Cup glory merely 18 months ago. Some picked Philly this fall.
I have learned a valuable lesson about the playoffs again this year from a certain Hal Gill. The lesson is that the regular season might as well be filed under completely irrelevant come May. The players who succeed in piling up wins in winter months are not the same players who make up series winners necessarily. Those same reporters, currently falling over in adoration of Toews and Thornton shouldn't forget this either.
Champions have to be made somewhere. 7 and 8 may be meeting for the Prince of Wales trophy, but it was not from luck alone, nor does previous luck determine future outcomes. Making the Stanley Cup final will be a formidable achievement for one of these teams. Don't think either would be satisfied at that.
Go Habs Go.