Talk about a story that defies the odds! The Philadelphia Flyers were the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference to start the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Montreal Canadiens the eighth. They didn't secure playoff berths until the final hours of the regular season.
And yet they have left a trail of carnage in their wake, with Philadelphia ousting New Jersey in five and then roaring back from an 0-3 deficit to stun the Boston Bruins in seven games.
The Canadiens merely eliminated the top-seeded Washington Capitals in seven games and then took out the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, also in seven games.
What happens in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals may well defy description.
Philadelphia's resurgence in the second round against Boston coincided with Simon Gagne's return from surgery that saw two screws implanted in his broken right big toe. He scored the winning goal in Game 7 and the overtime winner in Game 4, plus had a pair of goals in Game 5. His line, along with center Mike Richards and Daniel Carcillo, has been the team's best, but not the only one contributing.
Danny Briere has provided outstanding secondary scoring, with 5 goals and 5 assists against the Bruins, and his strong play has helped linemates Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell make significant offensive contributions. Hartnell especially was good in Game 5, scoring for the first time in nearly two months. He then added a goal in the Game 7 comeback and Leino had 2 assists in the clincher.
Left Wing - MTL
GOALS: 12 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 18
SOG: 48 | +/-: -1
Montreal's next three highest scorers -- Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez -- combined have 12 goals and 34 points and have also been responsible defensively, a must under coach Jacques Martin. They have provided enough scoring so that even in the few games Cammalleri hasn't scored, the Canadiens are still a decent 2-3, with one of those losses in overtime.
Inconsistent winger Andrei Kostitsyn was fairly invisible, offensively, during the Pittsburgh series with only 2 assists. In the first round against Washington, Kostitsyn had 3-3-6 in seven games, with most of the damage coming in a 3-1-4 performance in Game 2.
Dominic Moore (3-0-3), Maxim Lapierre (3-0-3) and Travis Moen (2-1-3) are three of the most dependable two-way forwards still alive in the postseason.
Chris Pronger was brought to Philadelphia for this time of season. His veteran poise and leadership, on and off the ice, was a major reason they were able to make history against the Bruins. He's played fewer than 26 minutes just once in the postseason, averaged 29:48 per game against Boston, and played more than 30 minutes twice. Oh, and he's also contributed 2 goals and 6 points. He's also a plus-2 and took just two minor penalties in the first six games.
Pronger's play has allowed Matt Carle to create havoc in the offensive end. He had 4 assists in Game 4, and has been confident carrying the puck and jumping into the play knowing he's got Pronger behind him.
Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn have been a solid second pairing, and Ryan Parent has contributed mightily on the penalty kill.
No doubt Montreal is missing All-Star Andrei Markov (knee) and dependable Paul Mara (shoulder), but the defense has been solid, led by offensive-minded Roman Hamrlik (0-6-6), Marc-Andre Bergeron (1-4-5) and eye-opening rookie PK Subban (1-3-4). Since returning from an undisclosed illness, Jaroslav Spacek has 2 points in two games.
When the Canadiens need a stop they call on the shutdown pairing of Josh Gorges (20 hits, 44 blocks) and Hal Gill (12 hits, 54 blocks), whom Sidney Crosby saw much of in the conference semifinals. After not playing in the first three games of the postseason, Ryan O'Byrne (29 hits, 25 blocks) has played in 10 of the last 11 contests.
In the clinching Game 7 against Pittsburgh, the Canadiens dressed Gorges, Gill, Hamrlik, Subban, Bergeron and Spacek, and all but the latter two played more than 20 minutes.
Michael Leighton's amazing story continues: Picked up on waivers in December, he saves the Flyers' season, only to be sidelined with an ankle injury in March. His first game back, he has to save the Flyers again, replacing an injured Brian Boucher. He then turned in winning performances in Game 6 and 7.
Jaroslav Halak is two series wins away from sainthood. He is tied for first in save percentage (.933), fourth in goals-against average (2.42), and one of three goalies with 8 victories.
Goalie - MTL
GAA: 2.42 | SVP: 0.933
"Obviously you can't forget about Jaro and how special he's been playing right now," Gorges said. "I mean, he's been unreal. There's no other words to explain it."
Peter Laviolette, Flyers -- Peter Laviolette has shown his juggling skills are on par with his coaching abilities. Frequent injuries to his forward lines have kept him changing lines, but he pressed all the right buttons against Boston. He showed he could keep a team focused in the worst of times and deserves a great deal of credit for not letting panic or frustration creep into the locker room.
Jacques Martin, Canadiens -- Jacques Martin has been tactically sound for the entire playoff run, at times shortening his bench and not adverse to re-configuring lines, as he did before Game 4 against Pittsburgh that led to a win. He's also made sure to give ample playing time to his pesky third line of Moore-Lapierre-Moen/Benoit Pouliot, who has excelled offensively and defensively. Against Washington, Martin benched Jaroslav Halak for one game following two-straight losses, but he's unlikely to take such a gamble against having gotten this far (Halak is 7-3 since).
Philadelphia made its historic comeback with surprisingly little help from its power play -- the Flyers went just 2-for-15 in winning three-straight games to tie the series. They certainly don't lack for skill, with Pronger and Carle at the points on the top unit, and Richards, Gagne and Giroux always around the net looking for rebounds. Gagne's winning goal in Game 7 came on the power play.
The strong penalty killing the Flyers showed in the first round against New Jersey carried through the semifinals, as they limited Boston to just 3 power-play goals in winning the series.
The Canadiens are near the top of the League playoff leaders in both categories. Their power play unit is fifth at 21.6 percent (11 for 51). Eight of those scores have come on the road (26.7 percent), and three at home (14.3 percent). Montreal's penalty killers have the unit fourth at 85.5 percent despite being shorthanded 62 times (second to Detroit's 64). They are 87.1 (4 for 31) at home and 83.9 (5 for 31) on the road.
Danny Briere, Flyers -- When Briere reached free agency in 2007, the Canadiens made signing him a priority, but instead the Gatineau, Que., native signed in Philadelphia. He became Public Enemy No. 1 at the Bell Centre, getting booed every visit. This season, he responded with 4 goals in two games.
Jaroslav Halak, Montreal -- The 25-year-old Slovak has survived the Montreal pressure cooker (many others haven't) and made an entire nation believe a No. 8 seed can win a Cup. Halak has also taken a ton of pressure off a banged-up defense that includes Subban, a rookie -- albeit an impressive one -- who had only two games of NHL experience before this postseason.
"That's what I'm there for," said Halak. "Guys block shots, guys score goals, kill penalties, everybody on this team contributes to what we're doing, and I just do my part."
Flyers will win if … They don't get frustrated by Jaroslav Halak. The Montreal netminder has shown an ability to steal games by himself, and blown chances seemed to emotionally effect the Capitals and Penguins. The players have to understand that staying with the plan and continuing to generate traffic at the net eventually will create cracks in the Canadiens' defense.
Canadiens will win if … Sure, Halak has made all the big stops (a League-leading 420 saves), but the Canadiens have also gotten this far with a commitment to defense, blocking an NHL-high 320 shots -- second place Chicago is not even close with 190. Stopping all those pucks makes Montreal's 39 goals (2.79 per game, 10th through two rounds) really stand up on the scoreboard. Five of their eight wins have been by one goal.
Preview compiled by Adam Kimelman and Rocky Bonanno.