It hasn’t been pretty, but it was never supposed to be.
Playoff hockey isn’t flowers. It’s dirt.
It’s not wind chimes. It’s the chilling wind.
Playoff hockey is played by hulking, bearded men who take great pleasure at the first chance to shove their sweating gloves into the faces of their opponents after a whistle, attempting to gain the slightest psychological edge.
This isn’t Disney on Ice.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are two-week-at-a-time gladiator playdates with a foe that hates you more than you hate him. If you survive, you get matched up with a new foe, who hates you even more, and then another, until there’s no one left to hate.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the beginning of the Flyers’ playoff run has become an excruciating grind, looking downright ugly at times. It’s true that the Montreal Canadiens lacked some of the high-end credentials that the other 23 playoff teams carried when they punched their ticket to play in the bubble in Toronto. But the Canadiens are an official NHL team, and a deceptively good one, despite their regular season record.
In the age of salary caps and hockey parity, the better team doesn’t always win every game. During the regular season, the Flyers lost to four of the seven teams that didn’t even qualify for the playoffs. Remember that 5-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 6? It happens. The Flyers followed it with a 7-2 drubbing of the Washington Capitals just two days later.
If the Flyers thought they were going to roll through the Canadiens in four straight games, just because they finished 18 points higher than the Habs in the regular season standings, they were sorely mistaken.
You can look at the negatives — and there are plenty so far — in that the Flyers have been outscored 6-3 in their first three games of the series. Or you can look at the fact the Flyers hold a two games to one lead despite getting basically no offense from their top forwards while showcasing an impotent power play.
This, of course, will have to change if the Flyers are to advance. Carter Hart’s superhuman .949 playoff save percentage has been miraculous, and Philly should be counting its lucky stars. But Carey Price’s slightly better .953 save percentage has Montreal staring down a one-game deficit. Goaltending is a lot, but it’s not everything. And the Flyers’ top scorers will need to be there in the times Hart looks human.
All eyes to the power play, where the Flyers have gotten away from their strengths.
During the regular season, the Flyers managed a middle-of-the pack power play that they would kill for today. Philly clocked in at 21-percent efficiency during the regular season, compared to a 4-percent clip so far in the postseason. They are 1-for-14 (7 percent) against the Canadiens. That explains the absence of about two goals in these first three games. It wouldn’t have helped much in the 5-0 loss in Game 2, but an extra goal in the pair of one-goal wins sure would have everybody breathing a little bit easier heading into a pivotal Game 4.
The power play offers a chance for top stars to shine in sync with pretty passes and one-time finishes. None of it has worked against the blue-collar Canadiens. Poorly executed passes have been forced through clumps of penalty killers. The best faceoff team in the league has somehow failed to win the first face-off of each man advantage on most occasions, sending them chasing the puck down the other end. Their zone entries have been subpar and they can’t get shots through to the net. Personnel changes could be the answer, but it’s probably more of a change in philosophy.
The Flyers’ six highest-paid forwards eat up half ($40.5 million) of their salary cap and play significant time with the man-advantage. That group of Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Kevin Hayes, James van Riemsdyk, Travis Konecny and Sean Couturier have combined for two goals since the Flyers arrived in Toronto — both by Voracek.
Both of Voracek’s goals were off his body, just inches outside of the blue paint of the goal crease. They weren’t pretty and they didn’t need to be. It’s how you beat Carey Price. Once you get a few ugly ones, the pretty stuff usually opens up.
And the Flyers should get used to that formula, as it’s likely they’d see either the New York Islanders or the Columbus Blue Jackets in the next round.
If you think there’s not much room against the Habs, expect the ice to be cut in half against the grinding Isles or Jackets.
It’s playoff hockey. It’s not always pretty, but it can still be enjoyable if the Flyers tweak a few things.