For the first time since 2012, the Flyers were in a playoff handshake line Friday night and were advancing to the next round.
Getting goals from Ivan Provorov, Kevin Hayes and Michael Raffl, they defeated the upstart Montreal Canadiens, 3-2, and moved into the Eastern Conference semifinals against the sizzling New York Islanders starting Monday.
Never mind that there were no fans at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena to watch the top-seeded Flyers win their first playoff series since they whipped Pittsburgh eight years ago.
Never mind that eighth-seeded Montreal outplayed them in the first two periods.
The Flyers were just relieved that they disposed of the Canadiens, four games to two, and can set their sights on the Islanders.
“It’s great to get the first one out of the way,” said Provorov, who played nearly 25 minutes, “but we’re not done. We’re going to continue to get better.”
“Getting into the playoffs and winning one round is not our goal, but it’s our first step,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said.
Beating the Islanders will be difficult. Very difficult. The Flyers went 0-2-1 against the Isles in the regular season, and they blew a 3-0 third-period lead in their early-season shootout loss to New York. The sixth-seeded Islanders ousted the third-seeded Capitals in five games, averaged 4.3 goals per game in the series against the Flyers and outscored them, 13-9.
The Flyers again bounced back following a loss. They have not lost two straight since Jan. 7, and since then they are 10-0 following a defeat.
Carter Hart recorded 31 saves and outplayed his boyhood idol, Montreal’s Carey Price, who made just 14 stops.
Hart said shaking hands and chatting with Price after the game was “pretty special and definitely something I won’t forget.”
Montreal outshot the Flyers, 32-17.
“We knew they were going to come hard,” Hart said. “They’re fighting for their lives, so they’re going to just try and throw everything at the net. I thought we did a really good job of collapsing in front of the net and we got a lot of big blocks.”
After it was over, Flyers forward Derek Grant patted Montreal’s Nick Suzuki (two goals) on the helmet. It was Suzuki (two goals) who mockingly tapped Hart on the helmet after a Habs goal in Game 5.
“I think it speaks volumes that we didn’t play up to our capability and we still got four wins,” said Hayes, who had two points and was plus-3. “I don’t think we played bad, but I think every opponent brings a different challenge, and I thought Montreal was a tough opponent, and I’m proud of the guys and the way we battled.”
Defenseman Travis Sanheim, after taking a drop pass from Jake Voracek, ripped a shot from the high slot that deflected off Raffl (five hits) and past Price to put the Flyers ahead, 3-1, with 15:34 left in the second period.
But just as they did in their 5-3 loss in Game 5, the Flyers allowed a quick goal after one of their scores. About 1 1/2 minutes after Raffl scored, Suzuki, a 21-year-old center who looks like a future star, whipped a shot from a bad angle near the goal line to get the Habs to within 3-2.
Montreal, playing with more desperation than the Flyers in the first 40 minutes, had a 20-12 shots advantage after two periods.
“We have to get more pucks to the net,” Hayes said after the second intermission.
The Flyers grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first 5:23, but were actually outplayed in the opening period.
Just 28 seconds into the game, Provorov scored from above the left circle when his wrist shot went through the legs of defenseman Shea Weber and past Price. Travis Konecny appeared to get his stick on the puck in front, but Provorov was credited with the goal, the first in his playoff career.
Hayes made it 2-0 with 14:37 left in the first as he took a pass from Grant and his point-blank shot went off Price’s pads and trickled into the net. It was his first goal of the postseason, and it gave the Flyers two goals on their first three shots.
It was Hayes’ his first career goal in 26 games against Price.
Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who was in the lineup because of Matt Niskanen’s suspension, started the goal-scoring sequence with a deft move that enabled him to make an entry into the offensive zone.
Gostisbehere was plus-2 and contributed two blocks and a pair of hits.
“It’s pretty fun to get a series win, but obviously, we’re not done,” Gostisbehere said. “We’re going to keep this train rolling.”
Midway through the first, Montreal, which was without the injured Brendan Gallagher (broken jaw), sliced it to 2-1 as Suzuki scored on a power-play rebound.
It was an odd opening period. The Flyers left the ice after 20 minutes with the lead, but Montreal had the edge in shots (10-6) despite three Philadelphia power plays. The Habs also had an advantage in hits (12-4) and faceoffs won (67%) – and looked like the hungrier team.
The Flyers wasted the three power plays, while Montreal was 1 for 1 with an extra attacker in the first period.
In the end, the Flyers’ defense stood tall and was aided by Justin Braun, who had six of the team’s 21 blocks.