Technically, game seven against Boston was a bigger game. But, maybe because the conference finals are so much sweeter a goal than the semis, and a loss tonight would make that goal so difficult to reach, tonight's game feels like the biggest of the year. Win, and the series is tied going back to Montreal. Lose, and you're on the brink of elimination...forced to the near-impossible task of winning three straight or going golfing.
As previously detailed in this blog, I hate the Flyers. I hate the Penguins too, for other reasons...among them Michel Therrien's combover and Sidney Crosby's glove-kissing...but it would still be more palatable to face the Pens and get killed than it would be to outplay the Flyers and still lose to that bunch of thugs. It would be one thing if the Canadiens were the worse team...but they aren't. They're right there, dominating in every game, with every possible break going against them. I'm not saying they've been perfect, but they've been better than the Flyers, with rotten results.
I've been a fan long enough to know that a team will break your heart more often than they'll send you into paroxysms of joy. But this is the first time in years that we Habs fans have been closer to an even-keel of satisfaction at the team's having met its potential than we've been to the depths of frustration and despair caused by yet another failed season. I don't want this fabulous season to end without meeting that potential...and the Canadiens can include in the realm of possibility their ability to beat the bloody Flyers.
Three things have to happen tonight if they're to avoid looking down the abyss of elimination. First, Carey Price (who, of course, will be starting) will have to be, if not spectacular, at least reliable. No more of these "I got a piece of it, but..." goals. He has to keep the team in it, and he has to find a way to stop some pucks. Second, the forwards have to stop missing blatant opportunities to score. No more posts, no more muffed redirects into empty nets, no more failed breakaways. Third, the powerplay has to produce...or at least refrain from allowing shorthanded goals. It's really gone from brilliant, inevitable even, to downright horrid since the end of the regular season.
And, as the sum result of these three things happening, the most important factor of the night...which could be the determining factor of the game and the series...is getting a lead for the first time since game seven against Boston. A lead will give Price some breathing room so he doesn't have to be terrified of making a mistake. It will put the pressure on Philly and force them to open up their game, which will in turn give the Habs more scoring opportunities. Just as importantly, it will allow the Canadiens to play their hard-skating, aggressive, attacking game...not the come-from-behind, desperate game they've been forced to play up until now in this series.
If this is the biggest game of the year for the Habs, the first goal will be the biggest goal. It just remains to be seen whether it'll be the guys in white or the ones in black and orange who score it. We'll tell a lot about where this series is going when that question is answered tonight.