Underdog to the underdog
Some teams just love their underdog tag, and in the case of the 7th seed vs the 8th seed team, it seems that Montreal just isn’t happy unless it has to overcome something. Almost as if to prove a point to that effect, they just about rolled over and died in their first two games against Philadelphia, only to have a sudden wakey wakey moment once the series rolled into their own hometown. You can say that maybe they were turning it on for their home crowd, or that maybe they needed those first couple of games to figure out the Flyers. In the case of Leighton, they did an almost painfully long analysis, keeping their distance and making tentative taps at the puck to see if he was real or not. He was real alright and he was fallible.
How do you explain this kind of turn around? Is there a Jekyll/ Hyde things happening here? Is there one unbeatable Canadiens squad, just as there’s one unbeatable Halak who lives alongside the fragile Canadiens squad and the fragile Halak?
In some ways, this is true. In more practical hockey terms, though, the real key of this series is adaptability. The Montreal Canadiens switched up their game substantially and turned themselves around, learning from the lessons of their previous losses. They were far more disciplined, far more aggressive and rushed the net for more opportunistic goal scoring. They were also making use of their advantages.
The Mighty Vs. the Swift
Philadelphia’s main advantage in this series was their size. Their scrappy game style was a guarantee of some serious pain for the smaller Canadiens. But this team showed that it’s not all about size when it comes to prosports, and made the most of their best asset: their speed.
The first two games saw a lot of Canadiens being flung around like plush toys. Accustomed to a less physical style of play used by Washington and Pittsburgh, it seemed like Montreal couldn’t get themselves moving fast enough to get out the way and they were punished. In this game, however, all that changed. Montreal sped around in the neutral zone, helping to unclog that part of the ice that was previously all Flyer territory and made them look like big, clumsy oafs. Philadelphia, for its part, seemed incapable of getting their own big feet moving in time, and lost a lot of puck possession battles that were essential to the goals scored.
One Good Bruise Deserves Another
Montreal also came back in another area where it was weak before: hits. Without playing a careless game, Montreal did get involved physically in this game and it was done smartly. They got on the guys that they needed to: Pronger, Briere, Carcillo, Richards and Hartnell. They got in their way, they pushed and prodded at them like cattle, they said a few choice words and they got under their skin. They even started a few good scraps, particularly near the end of the game where it went from hockey to good old fashioned schmozzle.
Faster than the speed of mouth
Maxime Lapierre, with his propensity for on ice theatrics, expressive faces, crazy eyes and motor mouth deserves a special place of honour in the hall of great NHL agitators. Joining the ranks of other such greats such as Sean Avery and Jarko Ruutu, Lapierre has all the qualities that make agitators terrible for the opposition and a weapon for their team. While not exactly known for making sound and reasonable decisions, Lapierre did manage to poke a few ribs without losing his own cool, taking selfish penalties or keep himself from smiling. His smile doesn’t hold a grain of child-like, innocent joy either. There’s something downright creepy and suspicious about it, like the smile of a guy who’s getting away with something. All opposition teams should fear that smile.
A few good calls made by the Montreal coaching staff for this game. There was Jacques’ lucky tie, more communication on the bench, good use of timeouts, and the decision to stay with Halak. Any of these decisions gone wrong could have been the game tosser.
As stated before, Halak was never responsible for the 2 previous losses. He needed the defense in front of him to be smarter and he needed his offense to provide him with a lead that he could protect. 0 is not that kind of number. He needed to see more clearly in front of him and not have his own team screening him. When these things come together, Halak is nothing short of magnifique.
Laviolette was not able to calm his players down like in the past during this game and it’s not clear exactly why that was. Perhaps with emotions and frustrations running so high, they simply weren’t in a frame of mind to hear it. And perhaps, like Montreal, they’re a team that plays best when faced with real adversity. It seems like neither team likes to be the favourite. It’s an all or nothing game.
A more strategic use of timeouts early on in the game, like the one in the final miracle game against Boston should have been used in this game. A game 3 is still important and when the team started to show cracks, that should have been the time to talk them down.
Despite the 5 goal blowout on Leighton, it’s also hard to pin this loss on him. He’s been far better than anyone expected in this series so far and good plays by Montreal combined with some weak defense on his own team shouldn’t negate the 2 shut out wins he has under his belt. Regardless of how this game turned out, it would not be wise for Montreal to forget the first 2 games while moving ahead in this series. Underestimating Leighton could be their Achilles heel later on.
This series has been a case of mirror mirror. Philly’s first 2 game victories came for exactly the same reasons and the same game style as Montreal’s: everything that Montreal did wrong in their losses was corrected in their win and vice versa. It almost seems like a catch me catch you contest, where it’s always one team’s turn to shine and another’s to crumble. Which is what the playoffs are about in the first place.
Philadelphia claimed their first two home ice games as victories. Montreal may do the same for their 2 home ice games. Let’s see if the San Jose vs. Chicago series will go the same route. So far, San Jose lost both their home games. With the series moving on to the Windy City, let’s see if the winds of change also work their magic.
About the Author
Written by Mika Oehling
Office worker and sports nerd. Cannot play a professional sport to save my life, but love to write. Prone to rants, raves, snarky humour and caustic commentary. My team's the Ottawa Senators. Author of Armchair Hockey, a work of humourous fiction released this year and available for sale online at Chapters and Amazon.