TORONTO — They didn’t just do it to prove everyone wrong. They did it to prove themselves right.
Remember that about these Montreal Canadiens, because that four-game win over the Pittsburgh Penguins last week inspired the belief that they’re carrying into their opening-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against this powerhouse Philadelphia Flyers team.
Without it, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
But when you hear the way the Canadiens are talking about themselves right now, there’s a conviction in their tone that wasn’t there at any point from October to March. And that’s something to latch onto.
It’s amazing how different the world suddenly appears to Phillip Danault.
“I think we’ve got a good team,” Montreal’s top centre said Monday. “We battled hard against Pittsburgh, we got momentum, our confidence back, and we all believe here. Yes, we got a little bit of luck to be in the playoffs, but I think now anything can happen.”
The Canadiens wanted to believe it before they started this journey, they tried to convince themselves of it, but it was going to take a lot more than a motivational speech or two to undo the damage of a failed campaign from October up through March, when the NHL season was paused by a global pandemic.
Now it’s real to them.
“It’s certain that the confidence goes up,” said Danault. “The whole series against Pittsburgh was important for us to prove to ourselves we were capable. We all know the season was difficult for us, mentally, so to do that was pretty huge.
“The playoffs are about momentum, and I know we haven’t had a lot of time to gather it but, from what I see, the guys are on point and we’re all here to win. We want to have fun in this and embrace the challenge that’s ahead of us…”
This second hurdle feels a bit higher to clear — up against a Flyers team that hasn’t experienced a loss since before we started wiping down our groceries and hoarding toilet paper.
How will the Canadiens approach it?
“We don’t want to change anything from what we’ve seen against Pittsburgh,” said Danault. “I thought we played really good. We played confident. We’ve got to stay confident, too. Philly has more depth, they have four really good lines and their defence is a little more physical. But they’re not perfect, so we’ve got a chance. We’ve just got to stay confident. Execution’s got to be good. Defensive game’s got to be good, too. It’s going to be tight games.”
One more sleep until they begin.
Spy vs. Spy
Nate Thompson didn’t just play for the Canadiens over the last two seasons, he helped groom two of the players who played a huge role in the win over Pittsburgh.
Of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Thompson said on Monday that he thinks both are going to develop into great players with long-lasting careers.
Of this, Thompson is certain. And his opinion is more than qualified.
The Alaska native knows these Canadiens better than anyone playing against them and the Flyers are going to take advantage of that.
“I think, first of all, having Nate, a veteran player that’s such a role model in the way he prepares himself, the way he competes, the way he is with his teammates and a real good teammate, that’s his first and foremost value,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said Monday. “He comes to play and he plays hard.
“Obviously in our preparation for the Montreal Canadiens, we did, you know, pick his brain on what we saw on video. And I’m not going to go into length in what he shared with us. Obviously that stays internal. But there’s no doubt that he’s been here a short amount of time, but he’s been a real valuable player as far as bringing his game to the table every night and helping our group. And in this preparation for Montreal there’s no doubt that we did ask him a few questions.”
You have to the think the Canadiens’ coaching staff is doing the same thing with Dale Weise, and Jordan Weal and Christian Folin to a lesser extent.
All three were with the Flyers prior to joining the Canadiens, with Weise and Folin traded from Philadelphia to Montreal in February of 2019.
“From a coaching standpoint, I think the coaches put their work in,” Weise said on Monday. “They set the plays and the systems and how we’re going to play and how we’re going to react to what they do. And I think as we go along, over the next couple of days, maybe we’ll start to talk about just a little bit more personal aspect of things and just little things, tendencies you see from certain guys. I think we’ll talk about that in the next couple of days as we go along here.”
Because this isn’t just about Xs and Os; this is about physically and psychologically breaking down your opponent.
The value of having a teammate who recently played for your foe is being able to pick their brain on what sets certain guys off, what weaknesses they have, what you can say and do to make them uncomfortable and get under their skin.
It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s a factor.
“Obviously helps our team,” said Flyers forward Kevin Hayes on Monday. “When you have someone that was on their team for, I think the last two years, and he knows the ins and outs of the organization and what they do…I don’t think it’s going to be a huge game changer, but it definitely helps us.”
The play-in advantage
We all watched the games, and it was crystal clear the ones featuring qualifying teams were more intense than the round-robin games.
Flyers captain Claude Giroux doesn’t disagree.
“I mean, just watching the other games, you can see the level of intensity was maybe higher for the play-ins,” he said. “But for us, I think we’re pretty happy with our games through the round robin and our pre-tournament game. I think we felt like we’re playing pretty good right now. We think we can play a little bit better, too, just doing a lot of video and kind of making sure we’re all on the same page. But so far it’s been pretty good.
“Their games against Pittsburgh were very intense, maybe they’ll be a little bit more ready than us early on. But the round robin…it wasn’t not intense. It was still pretty good. It was more intense than a regular-season game, I would say. So, it will be interesting to see.”
Flyers in 6.
We surveyed a couple of NHL executives — they agreed to participate anonymously — and they both predicted Philadelphia would take care of business in less than seven games.
“Flyers will be tough to beat,” said the first one. “Could be a Flyers/Vegas final. Price will need to be Price to give them a chance. Montreal doesn’t have Philly’s depth, especially on the blue line.”
The second executive gave us a detailed breakdown.
“The Flyers are one of the best teams in the neutral zone,” he said. “They kill rushes, and rushes are a Montreal strength offensively.
“The Flyers are also one of the top teams at denying entries, which denies Montreal’s speed. If Montreal can’t use speed, they are not heavy enough to play a heavy game.
“Flyers are heavy on the forecheck and that’s a way to beat Montreal. Flyers can score and create offence on multiple lines and from the back end. Goalie is good but young. Price has to steal every game for Montreal to win, but that’s not impossible.”
Okay, so how do you counter all those things?
“You play to your identity and outwork them,” the executive replied. “Sounds stupid, but the team that plays to their identity the best is usually the one that wins. The goalie is key, as is the power play and penalty kill. It’s possible to shut down Philly’s power play.”
The Canadiens have to be more worried about their own power play, which, like Philadelphia’s, hasn’t scored since before the pause.
“Power play is a funny animal,” said the second executive. “It can catch fire at any time without explanation.”
It happened a couple of times this past season, but far too infrequently for the Canadiens. And the idea that it’s suddenly going to work against a Flyers team that hasn’t allowed a power-play goal since arriving in the bubble, a Flyers team that ranks as the top faceoff team in the league, seems farfetched.
But, it can happen. And though I’m not giving the Canadiens the edge in this series, I’m not discounting the possibility that they can win this time.
Neither are the executives.
“I truly believe they can win,” said the one who gave the detailed explanation.
For what it’s worth, he predicted the Canadiens would beat the Penguins.