The Flyers will be without their most experienced defenseman when they face Montreal in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal Friday night in Toronto.
Matt Niskanen was suspended by the NHL for one game Thursday night for cross-checking the face of hunched-over Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher with 5 minutes, 8 seconds left in the Flyers’ 5-3 loss Wednesday. Gallagher suffered a broken jaw that requires surgery, and he won’t play the rest of the series, Montreal announced.
No penalty was called on either player -- Gallagher knocked down Niskanen with a cross-check when the sequence started. Flyers coach Alain Vigneault called Niskanen’s stickwork a “hockey play that unfortunately cut him a bit,” and hinted that the 5-foot-9 Gallagher wouldn’t have gotten hit in the face if he wasn’t so small.
“I don’t think it’s Nisky’s fault that he might not be as tall as some of the other guys,” Vigneault said about Gallagher before the NHL’s ruling.
The Flyers have a three-games-to-two lead in the suddenly nasty best-of-seven series.
Niskanen, 33, was minus-3 in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss. but has had a strong season and has stabilized the play of his defensive partner, Ivan Prorovov, on the team’s No. 1 pairing. He had six blocked shots in one of the series wins, four in another.
Without the right-handed-shooting Niskanen, Vigneault may shake up his defensive pairings.
Among the options: moving right-handed veteran Justin Braun to the top unit, keeping Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers together on the second pairing, and adding Shayne Gostisbehere to the lineup and putting him on the third pairing with Robert Hagg.
Another option: shifting Myers, a righty, to the top pairing, moving Braun with Sanheim, and putting Gostisbehere with Hagg. But in that scenario, all three pairings would be changed, which might not be optimal in such an important game.
Or, quite simply: keeping the bottom two pairings intact and just inserting the left-handed Gostisbehere for Niskanen.
Niskanen, a 13-year veteran and the only current Flyer who has won a Stanley Cup championship, has played in 133 career postseason games.
As for Gallagher, the feisty winger was bleeding from the mouth and appeared to lose some teeth. He finished the game. The Canadiens had a reverse-angle video of Niskanen’s hit, shot by one of their staffers, that they submitted to the NHL for review.
Gallagher, who scored his first goal of the postseason Wednesday, “got up and seemed fine,” Vigneault said. “He was talking to the referees. The whole time he was on the bench, he was talking to our players the rest of the game. Gallagher’s a very competitive player.”
In this series, the Flyers have yet to play a great all-around game. Their three wins were because of their defensive play, but the offense wasn’t clicking, especially the power play. In their 5-3 loss Wednesday, the Flyers finally got their power play working -- they went 3-for-7, snapping an 0-for-18 drought -- but they made too many defensive mistakes and they were outplayed in five-on-five situations.
“You don’t want to lose any games, but it’s inevitable you will,” Hayes said. “It’s tough to win 16 straight. I think everyone knows what’s at stake here and I think everyone is going to bring their ‘A’ game.”
In their three wins in the series, the Flyers have kept Montreal to the perimeter, but the Canadiens had several chances down low Wednesday, as they did in their 5-0 victory in Game 2.
“We need to tighten up a little bit defensively,” Hayes said. “When we’re playing the right way defensively, it doesn’t allow them to have an open game and allows us to have a better chance of winning.”
Teams that have a 3-2 lead in a best-of-seven playoff own an all-time series record of 316-87 (.784).