For those who thought the Flyers’ first playoff series win since 2012 would be a cakewalk against a Montreal team that is playing in the postseason because of a pandemic-altered format, well, think again.
The Canadiens might be the last-seeded team in the Eastern Conference playoff field, but they aren’t playing like it.
Perhaps they were inspired by ill coach Claude Julien, who missed the game because of a heart procedure.
Perhaps they caught the Flyers feeling overconfident.
Or perhaps the Canadiens, who had the worst record in the 24-team field when the tournament started, have rediscovered their game at just the right time.
Eighth-seeded Montreal, getting two goals apiece from Tomas Tatar and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, evened the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the top-seeded Flyers with a 5-0 win Friday afternoon at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
“We got our butts kicked today in all facets of the game,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said. “They outworked us, they outplayed us, they outexecuted us.”
Carey Price made 30 saves and recorded the seventh shutout of his playoff career.
The best-of-seven series is tied at one win apiece, with Game 3 scheduled for Sunday at 8 p.m.
Considering what was at stake, the first period was the Flyers’ worst of the season. The Canadiens skated circles around the Flyers, took the first 12 shots, and built a 2-0 lead on rebound goals by Tatar and Kotkaniemi against a defenseless Carter Hart.
In the first 10 minutes, Montreal had a 20-3 domination in shot attempts, and the Flyers didn’t get their first shot on goal until 3 minutes, 36 seconds remained in the period.
“We were flat-footed,” said defenseman Justin Braun, whose team absorbed its first loss since March 10, after which the season was paused by the coronavirus outbreak. “They were winning puck races and battles.”
“Montreal‘s will to play the right way was much higher than ours,” Vigneault said. “At this point of the year, with the importance of the game, you certainly don’t expect that. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to turn the page and move on and get ready for the next game, because there’s no doubt they’re ready.”
The Habs finished the opening period with a big advantage in shots (16-6) and shot attempts (34-16).
Making matters worse for the Flyers: Travis Konecny, who led the team with 24 regular-season goals but has not scored in five postseason games, limped to the locker room with 8:26 left after blocking a shot and apparently injuring his left ankle.
If Konecny can’t play Sunday, Michael Raffl may return from an injury. Raffl skated before Friday’s game.
Brendan Gallagher set up the Canadiens’ first goal with his relentless work down low, and Hart stopped his shot but had no chance on Tatar’s rebound just 62 seconds into the game. It marked the first time in five postseason games that the Flyers had trailed at any point in a contest.
With 7:24 to go in the first, Montreal cycled the puck against a sagging defense and 20-year-old Kotkaniemi followed Jonathan Drouin’s shot and made it 2-0.
Tatar, who had not scored in the Habs’ previous five playoff games, deposited his second of the game to make it 3-0 early in the second period. From the top of the left circle, he put a perfectly placed wrist shot off the right post into the upper right corner while Montreal was on a power play after a highly questionable holding penalty on an incredulous Shayne Gostisbehere.
With 15:39 left in the second, the Flyers had a chance to make things interesting as they had a five-on-three power play for 1:38 against what was a weak Montreal penalty kill this season. But they had little traffic in front of Price and most of the shots were from distance.
The Flyers also wasted a chance to take control of the series. Teams that have a 2-0 lead in a series go on to win 87.2% of the time, according to Hockey-Reference.com. Teams that win the opener and lose Game 2 win only 48.2% of their series.
With 2:03 left in the second, Montreal made it 4-0 on a fluke goal by Joel Armia, whose crossing pass deflected off Gostisbehere’s skate and past an unsuspecting Hart.
Exit Hart. Enter Brian Elliott.
Hart (22 saves) wasn’t at fault. Two goals were scored on rebounds deposited by uncovered players, another goal went off the post as the goalie was screened, and the last one deflected off a teammate and changed direction.
Kotkaniemi’s power-play goal midway through the third period closed the scoring.
“We have to learn from it,” center Kevin Hayes said of the lopsided loss. “You can’t win the series in one game.”
But you can send a message that this series, despite the teams’ much different regular seasons, isn’t going to be easy for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.