Prior to Thursday evening, it would have been easy for the Montreal Canadiens to pack up and call it a season.
They were down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final, having been shut out twice by the Flyers in Philadelphia. They were without Andrei Markov, their best puckhandling defenseman, who is lost to a knee injury. Jaroslav Halak, their suddenly sensational goaltender was suddenly showing his human side. He was being physically overrun by the Flyers and was getting beat on shots that indicate a certain amount of fatigue, both mental and physical.
And what the heck, they had already beaten the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, two teams that just happened to respectively win the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup. The Habs had made the playoffs and gone farther than anyone imagined. Even in Montreal, where the standards -- or at least the expectations of living up to a long-ago standard -- are always higher than the reality checks elsewhere, this had been was a good season.
But two things would have left a bitter taste if the Canadiens had lost Game 3 and set up the possibility of an inglorious sweep:
1) They would have been grossly outplayed and that's tough to take, especially when you've already outplayed the best teams in the conference, if not the league, and are now losing to a team that, on paper and in the standings, was not arguably better than yours.
2) They were being outcoached.
Those are issues that any competitive team cannot or should not quit on.
Let's start with coaching. Jacques Martin is not everyone's cup of success, but he outmaneuvered Bruce Boudreau in the Washington series and did the same with Dan Bylsma in the run-up to the win vs. Pittsburgh (we'll give credit to the Penguins beating themselves in Game 7; no coaching kudos necessary). But against the Flyers, both Martin and his team were being outdone by Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette.
Laviolette had his players charging hard to Montreal's net and that was a problem for what had looked like a tired Canadiens defense. He had his top two lines relentlessly attacking a goalie who seemed to be retreating into his own net. The Flyers were making their high stickside shots from the right ridiculously effective as were their "everyone meet at the blue paint" charges for second and third chances.
But Thursday, Martin responded. He beefed up his defense by putting big-bodied defenseman Ryan O'Bryne back in the lineup. O'Bryne is no Markov and he's guilty of the odd bad penalty on too many occasions, but he brings size, a sense of defensive commitment, and some attitude to the proceedings. He didn't get a lot of ice time, but his mere presence seemed to help dispel the "we own the crease" mentality the Flyers had built up since they rolled over the Bruins and opened with back-to-back shutouts of the Canadiens.
Martin also appeared to borrow from the thinking of no less an authority than Scott Bowman, the 10-time Stanley Cup winner. Speaking on Toronto radio station The Fan 590, Bowman noted that the Flyers gained the zone so easily in the first two games that they either went right to the net or took time to drive the puck deep before passing back to their defensemen. That allowed time for their forwards to set up screens and harass Halak. It's a strategy that makes great use of defenseman Chris Pronger's point shot and ability to drive into the high slot. Even if Pronger or his defensive mates don't convert, the rebound of that initial shot can be hard to spot, and in the confusion and clutter of bodies in the crease, the Flyers were getting second and third chances that they were able to convert.
If Martin is anything as a coach, he is a master of the trapping defense. For most of Thursday's contest, his Canadiens seemed to pick up the Flyers early in the neutral zone and he often had his smaller but quicker forwards forchecking the Flyers relentlessly in Philadelphia's zone.
Too often in the first two games in this series, the Flyers had not only planted themselves in Montreal's crease, they brought the Canadiens defensemen in with them, creating a moving forest of bodies that Halak had to peer through. This time, Halak got lots of good looks at the puck in part because the Canadiens didn't allow themselves to get sucked in. Halak also benefited from better overall puck possession by his teammates who regularly forced the Flyers into turnovers that they not only moved back into Philadelphia's end, but regularly converted into scoring chances in part because the Flyers were often caught with too many men up the ice.
That may look like happenstance, but it is rooted in good coaching and proper adjustments.
The Canadiens, by no means the definition of a physical team, also played larger than they did in Philadelphia. Daniel Briere and Simon Gagne lead the Flyers' scoring parade. They are skilled players who have no fear driving the net, but they can be knocked off the puck and the Canadiens did that. They physically attacked Briere, igniting his temper and throwing him off his game. They also often picked him and Gagne up before they crossed Montreal's blue line, disrupting their flow and forcing long shots that Halak handled with ease.
Martin also came to the game facing the problem of getting his team to exit its own zone with speed. This deep in the playoffs, the Canadiens seemed tired and weren't skating with the authority they did in the previous two series. A coach can't do a lot in that regard, but playing in the Bell Centre has its own advantages and the Canadiens fed off the energy there. They found ways to exit their own zone quickly and smartly. Long (and smarter) passes designed to get behind the always on-rushing Flyers forwards seemed to help.
So did driving some sense into Scott Gomez and other Canadiens who were regularly taking ill-timed and senseless penalties in Philadelphia.
Though there was media pressure on Martin to take Marc-Andre Bergeron out of the lineup because of his series high minus-11, the coach was more discreet. He used the talented but defensively porous Bergeron sparingly in even-strength situations (11 minutes) but had him involved in power play opportunities. Though his man advantage skills and blistering shot are first rate, the Flyers had been using a "run-him" philosophy and it created scoring opportunities. Martin limited that Thursday and Bergeron finished the night at even and scored his first goal in the series.
The Canadiens also made a statement regarding Flyers goalie Michael Leighton, whois never to be confused as the second coming of Bernie Parent. They needed to quickly bring him back to his journeyman history. They did it, in part, by pressuring the Flyers' defense the way they did the Caps and Pens and they shut down Philadelphia's best playmakers as they had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Canadiens forced the Flyers to dump the puck and got it out of harm's way quickly. Instead of crashing Leighton's crease, however, they used their speed to get behind the Flyers' defense and confront the goalie one-on-one, and they beat him.
In essence, they answered the Flyers' challenge, both on the ice and from behind the bench.
Rest assured that the Flyers and Laviolette will adjust, but in gaining such a decisive victory in Game 3, the Canadiens are back to doing what they do best and that's a huge boost to their confidence. It's hard to play harder in the third round. Bodies have already paid a price and the mind, especially the mind of a player looking at a 3-0 deficit, can be problematic even in this, the year of the big comeback. This is the point in the playoffs where good coaching can make a difference and Martin, who was being outdone, rose to the challenge.
The Canadiens may not win this series, but after Thursday night, they can once again believe in themselves and their coach.