By Michael Farber, SI.com
Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens had seized the moral high ground in the second-round series against the Montreal Canadiens, calling Tom Kostopoulos' sucker slap late in Game 2 on star defenseman Kimmo Timonen -- it wasn't really much of a punch, was it? -- a "cowardly act." The heights of rectitude for the Flyers' coach must be dizzying considering the history of the organization - or the 2007-08 season, for that matter.
Stevens, Mr. Emily Post, a man with the placid mien of an accountant on April 16, has had the pleasure of coaching Steve Downie, Jesse Boulerice and Randy Jones, whose hit from behind ended the season of Boston's Patrice Bergeron. From his bully pulpit in the post-game press conference on Saturday, Stevens conveniently choose to ignore the team's bullying past and focus on the recently expired 60 minutes, which was, of course, his right. But don't forget, as Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau noted, this year the Flyers have been suspended more often than disbelief. They are still a fractious bunch - not a bad identity to have in a sport grounded in intimidation - but the Flyers' DNA happens to obscure the first-rate talent on a team general manager Paul Holmgren rebuilt with some lightning strokes last summer.
So which really is the more skilled team in this series? Philadelphia, 3-2 winner on Monday in Game 3, has shown it has every bit as much dazzle as the Canadiens, who were billed as the fancy team of the Eastern Conference. Mike Richards, the Flyers' heart-and-soul center, keyed the win. In the two-minute five-on-three Montreal power play in the first period, he won multiple faceoffs and kept the Canadiens out of the zone with his clears. And in the second period, he scored a shorthanded goal with about five minutes remaining, beating goalie Carey Price from 40 feet to give Philadelphia a 2-0 lead.
At that moment, Carbonneau should have swallowed hard and turned to backup Jaroslav Halak, who, at 22, is the senior partner on the NHL's youngest tandem. But in a move that could haunt the Canadiens all summer if they don't find a way to rally from their two games-to-one deficit, the coach tried to milk the remaining minutes of the period out of Price rather than have the 20-year-old skate off to the jeers of the orange-clad mob at Wachovia Center during the period. When Jeff Carter picked defenseman Mike Komisarek's pocket by the side of the net and set up R.J. Umberger for the third -- and ultimately decisive -- goal with 101 seconds left, it was like a manager pulling his starter one batter too late. Now Carbonneau has to decide if Halak, solid although largely untested in the third period after the switch, is a legitimate Plan B for Game 4 on Wednesday.
Price has been exceptional at times in the playoffs, especially early and late in the first-round series against Boston. He is capable of bouncing back, as he did with a Game 7 shutout of the Bruins. But his glove hand has turned to stone -- Richards' goal clanked off it -- and he looks mildly befuddled in the net instead of his usual laconic self. By trading Cristobal Huet to Washington at the deadline, Montreal was trying to make the rookie as comfortable as possible by not having a tested goalie in reserve. Now he seems rattled.
Although a move to Halak might smack of desperation, time is growing short for the team that had the best regular-season record in the conference and won all four meetings against the Flyers. Actually, Philadelphia should be a game from a sweep, having lost the opener in overtime after the Canadiens tied it late on a power play after pulling Price for an extra attacker. Indeed, the one-goal loss on Monday flattered Montreal, which scored twice on a five-minute power play in the third after Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher's hit from behind gave Francis Bouillon a face full of glass. Take away that power play and the surge that the Canadiens had in its wake, and Flyers goalie Martin Biron basically didn't give Montreal a sniff all night.
Of course, you can't take away Hatcher's major penalty from the game. This is what the Flyers do from time to time, but they are skilled enough and backstopped well enough than they can overcome their transgressions, suppress the genetic memory. Forget the moral high ground. From the elevation of a series lead against a team that has misplaced its brio, things are looking just swell in Philadelphia.