The Flyers swept three higher-seeded opponents in the round-robin tournament — and never trailed while outscoring them, 11-3 — despite not getting any goals from big guns Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, Kevin Hayes, Jake Voracek, or James van Riemsdyk.
And despite going 0-for-11 on the power play.
In other words, the Flyers can only get better, at least offensively, in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That’s a scary thought when you consider how they dominated three Eastern Conference heavyweights in the seeding tournament.
“I think we’ve shown we’re capable of beating anyone,” right winger Jake Voracek said in a Zoom call from Toronto on Tuesday. “... Let’s be honest. I think we go into the playoffs as one of the favorites. It’s a good feeling, and hopefully we’re going to find a way to go all the way.”
“We played really well in the three round-robin games, and now we’re just looking to carry that over into Game 1″ against Montreal on Wednesday night, goalie Carter Hart said.
They played stifling defense, outworked opponents, and got outstanding goaltending from Hart and Brian Elliott as they climbed from No. 4 to No. 1 in the Eastern Conference seedings.
Defense usually wins playoff games, so the Flyers won’t alter their approach against Montreal. But if their top line and power play can contribute more offense, the Black and Orange could be headed on a long playoff run.
Up first is Montreal, a team that almost definitely wouldn’t have even qualified for the playoffs if not for the pandemic-created 24-team tournament field.
To their credit, the Canadiens took advantage of their reprieve. Seeded 12th, they shocked fifth-seeded Pittsburgh, three games to one, to win their play-in series and earn the right to face the surging Flyers. They were a hungrier team and took advantage of their scoring chances to get past the Penguins. They also advanced because goalie Carey Price was in vintage form.
Now the Habs face a Flyers team that has won 12 of its last 13 games, including the regular season.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge for us, so you hope what happened in the first round is going to help you get through the second round,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. “We just have to be ready to play our best hockey to give ourselves a chance.”
Julien called the Flyers a deep team, and said that if “you’re not ready to play 60 minutes” against them, “you’re not going to have much success.”
The Flyers’ depth showed in the round-robin series as five of their 11 goals were scored by bottom-six forwards. Two goals were scored by defensemen, and just four were tallied by top-six forwards, including three by the emerging Scott Laughton.
Both teams play a puck-possession game, and the Canadiens will try to take advantage of their quickness against a defense that has been unyielding.
“I think we found a little bit of an identity,” Brett Kulak, a 26-year-old Montreal defenseman who missed eight days of training camp because he contracted the coronavirus, said about the series against Pittsburgh. “We’ve always wanted to be a team that played fast and used our speed. I think we did that well in the last couple games. And I thought we just outworked them.”
The Flyers, who went 2-1 against Montreal in the regular season and recorded both wins in overtime, have been adept at limiting shots and keeping opponents to the outside.
“Our D has been really solid,” said Hart, who turns 22 on Thursday. “Not only our D, but our forwards coming back and helping as well. Our PK was really solid for the whole three games there. I’m liking where our group is at right now and we’re excited to get this going.”
The Flyers allowed a league-low 28.7 shots per game during the regular season. On the other hand, the shoot-from-all-angles Canadiens averaged 34.1 shots per game, which was No. 2 in the NHL.
“We’re familiar with Montreal and their style of play and their strength and their speed -- and their willingness to throw pucks at the net and create those scrambles in front,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “That’s one of the areas I believe we improved on as the season went on. We’re going to be tested. There’s no doubt that Montreal did not beat Pittsburgh by luck. They earned that win. They’re going to be ready.”
Vigneault noted that Montreal lost all four regular-season games against Tampa Bay and that the Canadiens were “probably feeling pretty good” because they were facing the Flyers instead of the Lightning.
If Tampa had defeated the Flyers in the last round-robin game, the Canadiens would have met the Lightning in Round 1.