With the 76ers seemingly suffering a key injury a day, the Phillies using a bullpen that would embarrass a triple-A team, and many wondering if the NFL season will be affected by the pandemic, the Flyers have become the city’s best chance to bring home a championship.
This is the most optimism in Flyrdom in a decade, and with good reason.
The Flyers enter the Stanley Cup playoffs — they start their series Wednesday against Montreal — as the NHL’s hottest team, winning 12 of their last 13 games. Some betting lines have them favored to reach the Final. They have all four lines contributing, a stellar defense that allowed just one goal in each of the three round-robin games, and a young goalie, Carter Hart, who has embraced a national stage.
Warning: The Stanley Cup playoffs cultivate upsets. Just because the Flyers have emerged as the Eastern Conference’s top seed doesn’t mean they will be able to easily push aside the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens like, well, the three powers they soundly defeated in the round-robin tournament: Boston, Washington, and Tampa Bay.
Seedings mean nothing in this tournament. Remember in 2010, when the Flyers were the seventh-seeded team in the East and had the home-ice advantage in the conference finals because they were opposed by the eighth-seeded Habs?
Things happen in these short series. Inexplicable things. A hot goaltender can cancel a superior team. An injury to a key player can erase a team’s advantage.
In the play-in series, for instance, the two worst teams in the seedings — Montreal and Chicago — upset the top teams in the seedings, Pittsburgh and Edmonton, respectively, to move into the playoffs.
The round-robin mini-tournament was just as deliciously disruptive, as the two top seeds — Boston in the East, St. Louis in the West — finished last in the four-team field. The last-seeded team (Flyers) and third-seeded (Vegas) won their respective tournaments and climbed to the top seeding.
That said, the Flyers are in a very good spot. They have momentum, a strong blend of youth and veterans, and talent on their side. They are a better all-around team and have more firepower and a better defense than the Canadiens, pure and simple.
As Flyers icon Bernie Parent said last week, the only drawback is that no fans are allowed to attend and that the games are on neutral ice. The Flyers had the NHL’s best home record this season, so the (understandable) setup stings.
On the flip side, not having fans in arenas may loosen the pressure and actually benefit their rookies and young players, none of whom seemed awed by playing in their first postseason games. Count Hart, Joel Farabee, Nic Aube-Kubel, Phil Myers, and Connor Bunnaman among that group.
As for the first-round matchup, the Flyers’ intensity, already high in the round-robin tournament, will have to be raised a level against a Montreal team that has already survived a win-or-go-home round.
Ah, but there is a reason the Flyers (41-21-7) finished 18 points ahead of the Habs (31-31-9) in the regular season. Heck, Montreal would have been the eighth-best team if it would have competed in the Metropolitan Division — the Flyers were No. 2 — and would not have come close to qualifying for the playoffs if not for the pandemic-caused play-in system.
Yes, Montreal’s Carey Price can steal a game or two, but so can Hart. The Flyers are deeper and more balanced, have stronger special teams, and are a much better faceoff team than the Canadiens.
The Canadiens are using the “underdog” tag as a rallying cry, said Price, but that should not be enough against a team that has been on a mission since November.
In their play-in loss to Montreal, the Penguins were outworked and sometimes looked uninterested. It’s difficult to see that happening to an Alain Vigneault-coached Flyers team.
Vigneault, who coached in Montreal from 1997 to 2000, is on a mission, too. He has never won a Stanley Cup, coming close while coaching the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers.
His Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Boston, four games to three, in 2011. The Bruins were coached by Claude Julien, now the head coach in Montreal and a close friend of the gregarious Vigneault.
Julien, 60, and Vigneault, 59, go way back. They were teammates at Salt Lake City in the early 1980s. The two French Canadians started their coaching careers in the Quebec Major Junior League before becoming extremely successful in the NHL.
“There’s a deep bond and a deep respect,” Vigneault said on a Zoom call with reporters Monday from Toronto, “... but at the end of the day at this time, there’s no friends in coaching and there shouldn’t be any friends as far as players. It’s time to play and time to bring it.”
Vigneault and Julien have experienced heartbreak in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Julien also knows what it’s like to sip from the Stanley Cup.