Flyers, Canadiens prepare for an unlikely matchup

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

History suggests the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens should be carrying golf clubs right about now. But on Sunday, they'll have hockey sticks in their hands -- and Stanley Cup aspirations on their minds -- when, for the first time, the Eastern Conference finals will feature the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.

Each team's path to this point is as remarkable as it is unlikely.

Ten days ago, the injury-riddled Flyers, a team that qualified for the postseason via a shootout victory in the regular season finale, went down three games to none to the Boston Bruins. On Friday, they completed the rarest of comebacks, becoming only the third team -- in 162 attempts -- to rally from the NHL's equivalent of a death sentence. And they pulled it off by rallying from a 3-0 first period hole, joining the Washington Capitals (1988) and Edmonton Oilers (1991) as the only teams to overcome a three-goal deficit in a Game 7.

"Out of 16 [playoff] teams there's only one team that we can play that we could have home ice advantage," Flyers forward Danny Briere said, "and you know it happened. So this whole thing is unbelievable."

Opposite Briere and the Flyers at Wachovia Center ice will be Jaroslav Halak and the Canadiens, the first eighth seed to contend for the conference title since the current playoff format was adopted in 1994. Montreal rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the quarterfinals, then closed out venerable Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh by ousting the defending champion Penguins in a seven-game, second-round classic.

"When you see how they're playing," said Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, who noted recently that the Canadiens were the last team he wanted to face in the first round, "you start to think maybe it's not such a surprise."

The Flyers' farfetched tale, though, eclipses the Canadiens' -- even if by just a smidgen.

When Philadelphia fell in Game 3, most considered the Flyers' season to be finished. But in the first period of that game, it turns out, hard-hitting Flyers captain Mike Richards delivered a series-turning hit. He knocked David Krejci out of the playoffs with a dislocated wrist, exacerbating the offensive woes for a Boston team already minus 20-goal scorer Marco Sturm.

A game later, the Flyers got a bit healthier. Although leading scorer Jeff Carter (foot) remains sidelined indefinitely, Simon Gagné returned from a broken toe and scored the first of his four goals in the series, in overtime nonetheless. The Flyers are 4-0 since Gagné rejoined the lineup.

Then, late in Game 7, Gagné capitalized on a Boston blunder that might rival Bill Buckner's. Forwards Marc Savard and Vladimir Sobotka had a mixup on a line change, and the Bruins were whistled for a bench minor for too many men (the 33rd of the postseason as referees cracked down on the common infraction). Gagné's goal on the ensuing power play and Michael Leighton's 22 saves propelled the Flyers to their first four-game winning streak since February. Leighton has stopped 66 of 70 shots (.943 save percentage) since replacing the injured Brian Boucher (knee) in Game 5.

"I really feel like we're ready," said Philadelphia Coach Peter Laviolette, who replaced John Stevens in December after the Flyers slipped to 14th place in the East. "We're still dialed in. You get one day off. I think it's a good thing for our team."

Philadelphia may have momentum, but the Canadiens are the more rested of the two teams, who split their four regular season meetings and finished with 88 points. The Habs have been off since Wednesday, regrouping after consecutive seven-game series.

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