Canadiens will have their hands full with formidable Flyers

Philadelphia Flyers centre Scott Laughton (21) celebrates his third period goal alongside teammates Travis Konecny (11), Kevin Hayes (13) and Travis Sanheim (6) during third period NHL Stanley Cup qualifying round action against the Washington Capitals, in Toronto, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (Cole Burston/CP)

TORONTO — Philadelphia FlyersMontreal Canadiens, Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

There sure is a lot to sink your teeth into here.

The skill and depth of the Flyers against the pure speed of the Canadiens; Carter Hart against his idol, Carey Price; Alain Vigneault and Michel Therrien versus Claude Julien; Nate Thompson up against the team that traded him at the deadline; Dale Weise against the team that discarded him a year ago; two of the game’s best shutdown centres, in Sean Couturier and Phillip Danault, squaring off.

This should be fun.

It’ll be anything but easy for the Canadiens.

Sure, they toppled a championship-calibre Pittsburgh Penguins team in less than five games to get into this position.

But these Flyers are a different kind of beast. They’re a four-line powerhouse, a two-way juggernaut, and arguably the most confident team in this tournament.

How can they not be? They just plowed through the top-three teams in the Eastern Conference like a bulldozer running through a flower patch, allowing a single goal in each of their round-robin games to secure home ice advantage through the entirety of the post-season. And this was after winning 14 of their final 18 games in the lead up to the regular season being cut short by the novel coronavirus.

Some have been surprised by what the Flyers have accomplished this season. Not us.

This was foreseeable in April of 2019, when Vigneault was hired. It was a foregone conclusion when Therrien and Mike Yeo joined Vigneault’s staff three weeks later. These are three of the most intense and experienced coaches in the game, they’re all turn-around specialists, and it’s not like they were taking over a team barren of talent. All the ingredients were there.

But this Philadelphia group fell woefully short of expectations under Dave Hakstol.

You had to know there was a strong chance they’d pull it together under these three coaches, that the party was over and the work was just getting started.

And if you didn’t, let’s look under the hood of this well-oiled machine. A star-studded top six that has a little bit of everything, from Claude Giroux’s and Jakub Voracek’s elite skill to Travis Konecny’s and Couturier’s will to the size that Kevin Hayes and James van Riemsdyk bring. This team has six bottom-six forwards who registered at least 15 points this season, and one of them is all but guaranteed to be sitting for Thompson, who’s a faceoff and penalty-killing specialist.

Never mind Oscar Lindblom, who scored 18 points in 30 games before he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma (a type of bone cancer). He’s in remission, in the bubble and could be part of the mix before all is said and done.

And this Flyers team has an unheralded but highly capable defence corps, anchored by rising star Ivan Provorov and buoyed by the offence of Matt Niskanen and Travis Sanheim, who each scored at least 25 points this season.

We needed to know if 21-year-old Carter Hart could handle the heat in his first-ever NHL post-season. So did they.

The goaltender’s been virtually unbeatable so far, and Brian Elliott’s no slouch behind him.

So yeah. This Flyers team is a formidable opponent from top to bottom. A team that can win in every way. A skilled but gritty group that can score with the best of them and shut it down just the same.

Sure, they tallied the seventh-most goals in the league this season, but they also won the most faceoffs and allowed the least amount of shots on net.

And the Canadiens?

Shayne Gostisbehere was asked, after the Flyers beat the wheels off the formidable Tampa Bay Lightning in their final round-robin game on Saturday, how he feels about facing the Canadiens.

“They just played a big series. A big win,” the 27-year-old defenceman said. “They were underdogs there. They’re a good team. You can’t take anyone lightly in this league.”

And then Gostisbehere said, “I think for us it’s a good matchup.”

Just about any team would be right now for these Flyers, but you can excuse the young lad for thinking the 24th-ranked Canadiens might be an easier draw than the Columbus Blue Jackets or Toronto Maple Leafs.

Hart feels the challenge is 195 feet away from his crease.

“[Price] definitely stole them a series there,” he told NBC following Saturday’s game. “Played really well, made a lot of saves, really kept them in it. We know he’s arguably the best goaltender in the NHL, so we’re going to have to fire a lot of pucks at him.”

Surely Hart and his teammates know the Canadiens have the speed, the structure and the balance up front to make this a series. They must know that Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot and Jeff Petry are a talented triumvirate of defencemen, one prepared to make life difficult on their forwards.

Vigneault knows.

“They just beat a Pittsburgh Penguins team that has one of the best lineups in this competition,” he said on Saturday.

But that was all he said.

Now the coach will take his time to prepare and contemplate all the things that make this compelling theatre.

“You know this will be a fun series,” said Gostisbehere.

We’re counting on it.

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