If there was a category on Jeopardy called "Things That Are Flat," the daily double answer last night would have been "This team shocked the National Hockey League with its Game Seven heroics four days ago, then mysteriously vanished in a forest of black and orange." Who are the Montreal Canadiens, Alex?
"Flat" is the most charitable word I could think of to describe the wretched display on the ice in Game One. The Canadiens registered zero on the intensity scale all night long. They had no offence, bad defence and unfortunate goaltending. Special teams were "special" only in a sarcastic way. It looked like the Canadiens from the last week of the regular season...the ones who stunk out the joint in Carolina and Long Island, and who barely scraped out a loser point against the leafs; the ones we thought long banished...were back. They're not welcome.
The serious question today is, why? Why did a group of players that has proven over the previous fourteen playoff games that they've got heart, guts and determination completely fail to show up when they're only four wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals?
There are several possible answers. It's possible the Habs are hurting more than they're letting on. It could be the time off had them coming out flatfooted while the Flyers were still flying after Friday's huge win over Boston. Maybe the coaches didn't adapt properly from the Pens' and Caps' superstar-centric style to Philly's more balanced attack. Perhaps the Habs just can't physically match up with the Flyers. Or, least palatable of all, maybe our guys were afraid.
Unfortunately, the Habs showed some signs of being the latter; the hockey equivalent of a liverwurst and marshmallow sandwich, heavy on the marshmallow: bad-tasting, gag-inducing and squishy. The build-up of the Flyers' and their fans' tough reputation seems to have gotten to them.
It started with the Gomez penalty three minutes into the game, which was very reminiscent of what happened to the Habs in 2008, the last time they played the Flyers in the playoffs. The idea of the Flyers as a physical team who'd be playing a physical series got into their heads and the Canadiens started playing the Philly game instead of their own. Last night, just like two years ago, many of the penalties the Habs took came from attempts to be "tough" and "send a message." The message they ended up sending was that the Flyers are in their heads and they're playing dumb because of it. The problem is, when an opponent preoccupies a team like that, can the affected team shake it off?
I think last night can have one of two effects. It will either make the Flyers seem even bigger, tougher and better than the image the Habs had of them to begin with, or it will rally the Canadiens and spur the pride we know is a big part of their collective makeup. We fans had better hope it's the second option, because it's impossible to be more humiliated than they were last night. Not only did every French Canadian Flyer forward score, but the Habs were outskated and outworked by a team with less rest and shut out by a goalie who's the modern incarnation of Gary "Suitcase" Smith. The icing on the mud cake was the Philly fans derisively singing "Ole" as the clock wound down. If that doesn't make the Habs come out with their best effort in Game Two, nothing will.
The Habs failed to use their speed, which is their greatest weapon, in Game One. They also failed to put their best players on the ice for the particular situation. Ryan O'Byrne isn't the best defenceman on the team, but he was the right guy to play last night. Bergeron is only on the ice because of the potential of his point shot to blind a goalie on the PP. That's a good thing to have in the lineup, but it's a luxury. It has to be balanced against the fact that a team might get eight minutes on the power play, while it's defending its own net against big gate-crashers for fifty-two minutes. In that situation, a guy who's able to bounce some of those gate-crashers out of the crease outweighs the potential of a PP goal from the point. Scotty Bowman's fans always say his best asset as a coach was knowing which guys to use at what time. The Habs could use him now.
If the Canadiens thrive on being the underdog, the Flyers left no doubt last night that the Habs will be fighting their way up from the bottom once again. If there's going to be a different outcome in Game Two, however, some things will have to change. Speed will have to become a factor. The Habs will have to be disciplined, and let relentlessness on the puck replace stupid attempts at being tough. Muller and Martin need to offer a reward for the guy who's willing to actually go to the front of the net and stay there. (Honestly, I got tired last night watching Brian Gionta getting beaten up by Pronger and Coburn while standing in the blue paint.) Most of all, though, the Habs have to forget about taking on the Flyers on a physical level. They need to focus on what they're actually good at: skating and working hard.
It may come down to the simple fact that missing Andrei Markov on the back end will cripple the Habs' breakout and total offensive capability beyond saving in this series. It may be that the Flyers are a more balanced, more talented team with a better defence. If that's the case, there's no shame in losing. There *is* shame, though, in being second to every loose puck, in taking stupid penalties and in letting Flyers screen the Canadiens goalies unmolested while no Hab does the same to Leighton. If the Canadiens wonderful playoff run is going to end in Philly, let it end without further embarrassment at least. I have faith that this bunch of players, whose character we've seen carry them out of difficult situations many times in this post-season, will stand up and refuse to be shamed again. There's too much dignity in the Habs' room to allow that, and that's what I want to see tomorrow. I think they're mentally strong enough to shake off the sense of intimidation with which they're obviously dealing.
One thing's for sure: If the Habs come out flat in Game Two, they'll be flattened. Again.