Behind strong defense and goaltending, the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens have advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, which begins Sunday night. Building a team around defense and goaltending is always a solid vision. The difference with the seventh-seeded Flyers and eighth-seeded Canadiens is that very little has gone according to plan.
Philadelphia made two major offseason moves. They signed Ray Emery, who spent last year in the Kontinental Hockey League, to be their No. 1 netminder. For the Eastern Final, the Flyers will be led by Michael Leighton, picked up on waivers during the season from Carolina when Emery was lost for the year with a hip injury.
"Michael has been outstanding for us, just as Brian Boucher was in his absence," said Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette. "If you look at our team since we came back from the Olympic break, our goaltending has been a plus. We're very comfortable with Michael Leighton in net for us."
The Flyers' summer blockbuster maneuver, however, was on the blue line. Knowing they didn't have the offensive firepower to match up with Sidney Crosby's Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Capitals -- the presumed conference juggernauts -- Flyers GM Paul Holmgren went in search of a defender to stop them. For the high cost of assets -- a prospect and first-round picks -- Holmgren acquired future Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger.
The Flyers needed all 82 games, plus a shootout, to qualify for the playoffs. Now they're in the third round and Washington and Pittsburgh have been eliminated by Montreal. Instead of lending his considerable stature to slowing down Crosby and Evegni Malkin or Ovechkin, Pronger will tower over but have his hands full with smaller Canadiens forwards like Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez.
"I don't know if there is a defenseman you'd rather have on the ice in the big spots than Chris Pronger," said Laviolette. "And as much praise as Chris deserves, I think you're seeing how good the rest of our defensemen are. I've been saying it since I got here: Kimmo Timonen is one of the most underrated players in the league. Matt Carle has been excellent, Braydon Coburn."
Sure enough, in the Flyers' Game 7 victory over Boston on Friday, Pronger played more than 31 minutes and Timonen, Carle and Coburn each played over 24. As the playoffs continue, Laviolette and assistant coach Kevin McCarthy -- who runs the defense behind the bench -- will only add responsibility to their top four defensemen.
As for the Canadiens, while the battle in goal between Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price has been an oft-told tale, the state of their defense has been a work-in-progress since the beginning of the season. Let head coach Jacques Martin explain:
"Early in the year we had Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek play against the top lines every night," said Martin. "Then we got Andrei Markov back, and that gave us lots of flexibility. After the Olympic break, we started rolling our six defensemen. We used Hal Gill and Josh Gorges, Markov and (Ryan) O'Byrne and Spacek and Hamrlik. We didn't have to match. We felt any of our six defense could do the job against No. 1 lines, and they did.
"For the playoffs, the experience Gill brought from last year with the Penguins was a factor. He helped shut down Alex Ovechkin for Pittsburgh last year against Washington. Hal's experience, and the improved play of Josh, made the decision easier. They've done an admirable job."
While the Canadiens' surprise playoff run has been in large part about Halak's heroics in goal and Cammalleri's NHL-best 12 goals, the play of Gill and Gorges has deservedly received a lot of attention. While so many people around the league are stunned to see the tandem become stars over the last month, Gorges revealed that his pal Gill knew all along.
Said Gorges after practice on Friday: "Before the playoffs, Hal said to me, 'You're going to be great in the playoffs.' I didn't know what he was talking about. Hal said, 'The way you play, your style, that's why you're going to be great in the playoffs.' I was thinking that if Hal thinks I'm going to be great, he's going to be unbelievable because his style wins in the playoffs. He proved that last season when he was with the Penguins. Hearing that from Hal, a guy who has won a Stanley Cup, was big for me. Having someone like him as a partner on the ice, with his experience and composure, makes the game easier and more fun to play."
Although Markov has begun skating on his own, the Canadiens are looking at the potential of their No. 1 defenseman's early return as pure gravy. Spacek is back at full strength after missing three weeks with a serious virus. Hamrlik looks rejuvenated by the big-game pressure. Rookie PK Subban, not so arguably, has been Montreal's most effective defenseman on some nights during the postseason. But there is little argument that Gill and Gorges have been the most consistent.
Gomez says all the hype for Gill and Gorges is beginning to get a little tough to take.
"It's horrible for the rest of us because they're attached at the hip off the ice," joked Gomez, "We have to hear about it a lot. But on a serious note, they've done a great job. It's so nice to what teammates take their performances to the next level."
Just as planned.