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
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:
Those are issues that any competitive team cannot or should not quit on.
Let's start with coaching.
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
Martin also appeared to borrow from the thinking of no less an authority than
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.
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
Though there was media pressure on Martin to take
The Canadiens also made a statement regarding Flyers goalie
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.