Tuesday May 18th, 2010

Kudos to any Montreal Canadiens fan who can detect a silver lining in that 6-0 thumping the team suffered on Sunday.

Well, other than the fact that the Habs can't play much worse.

There wasn't much to like about Montreal's game. The six-goal margin established it as their worst playoff shutout loss since 1919...you know, the year the Spanish Flu killed Montreal defenseman Joe Hall and caused the cancellation of the Stanley Cup Final.

The truth of it is that the Habs have to make some changes in if they want to avoid falling into a two-game hole.

But where to start?

No one's pointing any fingers at Jaroslav Halak. He was beaten by several soft chances in the opener, but he rebounded quickly from weak performances against Washington and Pittsburgh. And as much weight as he's been carrying, he's earned some slack.

But the defense, so reliable through the first two rounds, has to be more diligent, especially in front of Halak. The Flyers scored early and often from in close, thanks to a net presence that made life miserable for the Montreal goaler. Winning the battle for rebounds and clearing his line of vision isn't too much to expect if the compete level that was missing in the opener returns in Game 2.

But they'll have to be smart about it. The Canadiens were guilty of several lazy fouls in Game 1 and the Flyers exacted a steep price, scoring twice with the extra man and adding another just one second after a power play had expired. That was an unexpected turn. (Eastern Conference Finals breakdown)

If the foundation of Montreal's magical run has been the goaltending of Halak, then the walls have been the penalty kill. It hasn't just kept them afloat, it's been a momentum killer, an energy drainer for their opposition. The Flyers, however, are better suited for creating the kind of unified havoc that's much tougher to defend at this time of year than the perfection that the Caps and Pens were guilty of seeking. Staying out of the box becomes even more important.

So does changing their approach of the offense.

Montreal outshot the Flyers in Game 1, but it was strictly a case of quantity over quality. Instead of forcing their way into the greasy areas down low, a tactic that powered their opportunistic scoring through the first two rounds, the Canadiens seemed content with dialing long distance. Easier? Sure...but the Philly goalie graveyard is littered with guys who could have gobbled up those chances.

Give credit again to the Flyer forwards. Their ability to clog up the neutral zone (and get away with the occasional uncalled incident of interference) quickly drained the fight out of the Habs. And the one-on-one battles? More times than not, it was an orange sweater that skated away with the puck.

That fact was didn't go unnoticed by the Canadiens on Monday.

"It's a matter of winning individual battles," winger Brian Gionta said. "They're going to get in and forecheck hard. We've got to do a better job of moving the puck quicker. If they're coming that hard on the forecheck, you can make one or two quick passes, you catch them quick and it kind of slows them up the next time."

Montreal's own forecheck has to be better, too. Their lack of size wasn't an issue through the first two rounds, but it looked like a problem on Sunday. But if they can get the puck deep and enter the zone with speed, they might be able to counteract that disadvantage. Once they're in deep, they'll be in a position to create the screens and pick up the loose change.

That won't just be a matter of skill. That's all about will. On the rare instances that Montreal's forwards ventured into the crease, they were fed a steady diet of lumber by Philly's aggressive defenders. Fight through it and maybe they generate those chances...or at least a couple more power play opportunities.

It's all pretty straightforward, and the Habs all know it.

Tonight, it's a matter of how bad they want it.

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