|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2010||[Print without images]|
MONTREAL -- Two teams on the brink. Two teams trying not to get too caught up on what lies beyond the precipice, beyond Monday night.
One team, the Philadelphia Flyers, is on the verge of returning to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1997 by virtue of their 3-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.
The Canadiens, by virtue of their disappointing performance in Game 4, find themselves in familiar territory, facing playoff oblivion, down 3-1 in a series for the second time this spring.
The Canadiens will be hoping to continue their trend of defying fate Monday night as they are 5-0 in elimination games this spring.
"The good thing is, we know what works against this team," said Montreal forward Brian Gionta. "It's just a matter of us executing it. For three out of the four games, we haven't executed it. We have to find a way down the stretch to make sure we are playing our game and doing the right thing."
Still, if the Canadiens are to keep their remarkable playoff run going, they'll have to come up with a vastly improved effort than the one they turned in Saturday. If the Canadiens looked like a Formula One race car in Game 3 speeding past the Flyers en route to a 5-1 victory, they looked like a Formula One car in which someone had dumped sugar into the gas tank Saturday.
Sputtering and stuttering throughout the afternoon, the Canadiens tried to chip pucks past the Flyers only to have the passes knocked away, intercepted or neatly covered by the Flyers. By the end of the game, the Flyers had blocked 27 shots.
After a scoreless first period, the Canadiens were outshot 13-1 and outscored 2-0 in the second period, a 20-minute segment that might have cost the Habs the series. If Philadelphia netminder Michael Leighton had shown signs of being vulnerable in Game 3, it became a moot point because the Canadiens did so little to test him.
The team's leading scorer, Mike Cammalleri, had just one shot on goal.
Gionta had two. Scott Gomez zero. Tomas Plekanec two.
In all, the Canadiens managed just 17 shots on Leighton, who recorded his third shutout of the series, the first Flyers goaltender to accomplish such a feat in the team's illustrious history.
By the end of Game 4, the fans at Bell Centre reflected the Habs' frustration, booing the team on a late power-play opportunity.
It was that kind of afternoon.
"Well, the troubles were we didn't get the puck in deep in the second period. We turned the puck over numerous times," Montreal coach Jacques Martin said. "We played in what you call a danger zone, if you ask me. The blue lines are usually a dangerous zone. Your own blue line, you've got to get pucks out, and the offensive line, you've got to get puck in deep. When you look at both their goals in the second period, they were both turnovers on our part. I give them credit. They played a strong game today. They did a lot of the little things right."
After the Habs' dominant performance in Game 3, perhaps there was an air of desperation about the Flyers going into Game 4 despite the fact they led the series 2-1.
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette added top penalty killer and emotional spark plug Ian Laperriere to the lineup. Laperriere played in his first game since taking a shot to the face in Game 5 of the first round. Top goal-scorer Jeff Carter also made a surprise appearance in the lineup, rushing back from a foot injury that looked to keep him out of action for at least a week longer.
Neither players' presence was reflected on the score sheet (Laperriere did take a roughing penalty), but their inclusion reflected the urgency with which the Flyers treated this game.
"I can tell you we didn't play a very good game last game and it was a kick in the teeth," Laviolette said.
If the lineup itself was different for Game 4, so too was the Flyers' mindset. The game represented a significant rebound game for a number of Flyers players, including Leighton and Claude Giroux. The latter scored the first Philadelphia goal on a brilliant play, dancing around defenseman Josh Georges and then going backhand to forehand and snapping the puck over Jaroslav Halak's shoulder just 5:41 into the second period. Giroux added an empty-net goal in what was his best game of the series.
And then there was Chris Pronger, who had been on the ice for the first four Montreal goals in Game 3 but was terrific in Game 4, springing Ville Leino with a smart, long pass that led to the Flyers' second goal.
"Obviously, when you have a tough game, you want a rebound," Pronger said. "That's the sign of a professional, and I think we all realized there wasn't too many of us that had a good game in Game 3. They obviously played well and we didn't. We needed to rebound.
"And as Michael [Richards] alluded to earlier, we've been a team that's been able to recover from tough defeats like that all season long. A quick look in the mirror, and you see what you need to do to be successful, and we were able to rally together and play really well as a team today."
Overall, the team discipline was vastly improved over Game 3, in which the Flyers took 10 minor penalties. The Canadiens did not enjoy a power play until the 6:35 mark of the third period, and the Flyers ended up giving the Canadiens just two power-play opportunities on the afternoon.
While the Flyers bounced back, it was the Habs who took what could be a fateful step back.
For the second time in this series, rookie defenseman P.K. Subban looked out of place, trying to do too much. He was caught up ice on the second Flyers goal. Later, on the team's first power play in the third period when a goal would have been crucial for the Habs, Subban mishandled the puck along the blue line and allowed Richards a glorious shorthanded scoring chance.
"He's a young kid that wants to do well, has the heart at the right place," Martin said. "It's learning for him; it's experience and realizing that in a game like tonight you've got to be patient. You've got to make the right decisions. I'm sure he knows that. It's a good learning situation for him."
If the Canadiens are traveling a well-worn path along the abyss, the Flyers must now control their emotions knowing they are one win away from a wildly improbable Stanley Cup finals berth.
Laviolette acknowledged this potential close-out game will have a different dynamic.
"I guess it is because you're closer to where you need to get to," he said. "In the first round, there were a lot of teams that were thinking that, and now there's not so many.
"One thing we wanted to do tonight was make sure we just won one hockey game. That was really important. Not to look too far down, looking out there at the finals and who you might be playing. Just one game in Montreal, tough building, and making sure we played our best and did our best."
And so, we head back to Philadelphia with one team a step from a ticket to the Stanley Cup finals, and the other one step from oblivion. Definitely not a time for the faint of heart.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.