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Flyers look to gain ground in playoff race with visit to Montreal to face Canadiens

It wasn’t long ago that the Flyers dismantled these very same Canadiens, but that one didn’t feature Carey Price.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Flyers badly need points in a jam-packed playoff race, and they’ll be able to get two birds stoned at once tonight.

Not only would the Flyers gain two points in the standings with a win in Montreal tonight, but they’d take points away from the Canadiens —one of the teams occupying a playoff spot ahead of them— in the process. That’s a win-win, folks, and boy do the Flyers need to start gaining ground on the likes of the Sabres, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, and Canadiens.

Coming into tonight, the Flyers sit six points behind Columbus for the second wild card spot and nine points behind Montreal for the first wild card spot. The Penguins, the Flyers’ outdoor opponent on Saturday weather permitting, also have 71 points like the Canadiens and hold the third and final playoff spot in the Metropolitan. Both good, tough opponents, but two really good chances for the Flyers to help themselves in the hotly contested playoff race in the Eastern Conference.

But leaving Saturday’s tilt with the Penguins aside, the Flyers will have their hands full against the feisty Canadiens tonight for sure. Montreal doesn’t blow you away, and has just a plus-3 goal differential this season, the lowest of any East team currently holding a playoff position, but they do find ways to win.

Despite a power play that ranks 30th in the league at just 12.7%, and a penalty kill ranking 20th, the Habs sit 11th in the league with a .592 points percentage in what was expected to be a rebuilding year. Claude Julien’s team is buoyed by their strong 5-on-5 play, ranking eighth in the league in goals for percentage at 53.41% per NaturalStatTrick. They fact that the Habs are outscoring opponents by 15 at even strength has gone a long way in turning them into a playoff contender.

It also doesn’t hurt that Carey Price is healthy and has returned to form. They’ve also gotten breakout seasons from Max Domi (52 points), and Jonathan Drouin to pair along with surprises like Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and rookie pivot Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The defense has gotten a boost from Shea Weber’s return to help fortify an otherwise pedestrian unit outside of Jeff Petry, currently in the middle of a career season with 38 points in 60 games after posting a career-best 42 points in 82 games a year ago.

This will be the second meeting between the two clubs, with the Flyers scaling a 5-2 win back on Jan. 19th as a part of the Flyers’ eight-game win streak that started this run from the bottom of the standings.


Three things

Control the neutral zone

A big reason the Flyers have struggled in recent games against the likes of the Penguins and Lightning is that 1) they’re good teams and 2) the Flyers lost the battle between the blue lines. The good even strength teams are typically good in the neutral zone, bottling up opposing offenses with turnovers and turning defense into offense at the other end.

Montreal is another team that will put the clamps on in the middle of the ice and make life difficult for the Flyers. They need to be mindful of their puck management in the neutral zone and make sure not to give the Habs extra odd-man rushes and chances as they are somewhat of an offensively challenged team outside of even strength.

Sloppy play between the blue lines cost the Flyers in their last game, and the same could happen on the road against the Canadiens if the Flyers don’t tighten things up.

Make the power plays count

The Flyers couldn’t get their power play going against Tampa Bay, going 0-for-3 in the loss, but they should struggle less against one of the league’s worst penalty killing clubs as opposed to the Lightning’s second-ranked unit.

One man the Flyers could look to for help is Claude Giroux, who is now scoreless in his last three games and has just four power play points in his last 13 games. The captain could look for his shot more on the man-advantage, too, as he’s got just two power play goals this season. Instead of continuing to feed the ice-cold Shayne Gostisbehere, Giroux should start to look to put his stamp on the Flyers power plays.

Giroux isn’t the only one who could help get the power play going again, as the whole first power play unit has been overshadowed recently by the work done by the second unit to finally get things going. It’s about time to get the top unit firing on all cylinders again, and a date with Montreal could be just what the doctor ordered.

Survive without Radko Gudas

The Flyers will be without arguably their best all-around defenseman this season as Gudas serves his two-game suspension against Montreal and then on Saturday against Pittsburgh. Gudas is second on the team with 2:45 of shorthanded time on ice per game and has chipped in 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) in 58 games. It might not seem like it, but with Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere having down seasons, and Travis Sanheim up-and-down on a nightly basis, Gudas has been the Flyers’ best by default.

Montreal has some guys like Domi and Brendan Gallagher that can and will get under your skin, and missing Gudas’ toughness could hurt. Not to mention he’s one of the Flyers’ best penalty killers, too. Without him in the lineup the Flyers really need the rest of the defense to step up and play like they’re all capable. Well at least Provorov, Ghost, and Sanheim, that is: Andrew MacDonald is just a lost cause.


Flyers Projected Lineup

Forwards

JVR — Giroux — Konecny

Lindblom — Couturier — Voracek

Laughton — Patrick — Simmonds

Bailey — Varone — Raffl

Defense

Provorov — Sanheim

Gostisbehere — Myers

Hagg — MacDonald

Goalie

Hart

(Talbot/Elliott/John Vanbiesbrouck)

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