(Sports Network) - The Eastern Conference finals are set to begin tonight in Philadelphia, as a pair of surprising teams meet at the Wachovia Center for Game 1 between the host Flyers and the Montreal Canadiens.
The Flyers and Canadiens entered this postseason as the seventh and eighth- seeded teams, respectively, in the Eastern Conference. This best-of-seven set marks the first time since the NHL adopted its current playoff format in 1994 that the bottom two seeds in either conference will play a series with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line.
The Flyers earned their spot in the conference finals by beating New Jersey in five games in Round 1 before making history in their seven-game series victory over Boston.
Philadelphia was down three games to none against the Bruins, but won the final four games of the best-of-seven set to become the first NHL team in 35 years to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a series. Not only did the Flyers come back from down 3-0 in the series, but also trailed 3-0 in the first period of Game 7 before charging back for a 4-3 victory in front of a stunned crowd at Boston's TD Garden.
All this from a team that needed to win a shootout over the New York Rangers on the final day of the season to even make the playoffs. Now, the Flyers have home-ice to start the Eastern Conference finals and are just one step away from reaching their first Cup Finals since 1997. Philadelphia has lost in its last three trips to the conference finals.
Meanwhile, Montreal needed to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat top- seeded Washington in the opening round, but the Habs never seemed to be overmatched in the conference semifinals against Pittsburgh, last year's Stanley Cup champions. The Canadiens never allowed the two-time defending conference champs to get more than a one-game lead in the series, as the team's alternated wins and losses until Montreal was able to take both Games 6 and 7.
The Flyers and Canadiens are meeting in the playoffs for the sixth time. Montreal won three of the previous five encounters, but Philly beat the Habs in five games the last time the franchises met in the 2008 conference semifinals. Prior to that, the previous two encounters were for conference titles, with Montreal earning a trip to the Cup Finals in 1989 -- two years after Philly beat them for the Prince of Wales Trophy in 1987.
The clubs split four meetings during the regular season. Each team picked up a win at home and on the road in the 2009-10 season series. Montreal has taken 11 of the last 14 regular-season meetings overall.
Philadelphia enters this series with four double-digit scorers. Captain Mike Richards leads the pack with 17 points, (5 goals, 12 assists), Danny Briere has a team-high seven goals to go along with eight assists, while young forward Claude Giroux and defenseman Chris Pronger each have 11 points in this postseason.
Brian Boucher started the first 10 games of this postseason for the Flyers until suffering a sprained left MCL in Game 5 against the Bruins. However, Michael Leighton, who had been the starter before going down to a high ankle sprain in mid-March, stepped in for the rest of the series and stopped 66- of-70 shots (.943 save percentage) to help Philly close out the set.
Leighton had never seen action in an NHL postseason game before Boucher's injury in Game 5, but outside of giving up three goals in the first period of Game 7 against the Bruins, he seemed more than up to the task. He will be the No. 1 netminder in this series as Boucher is expected to be out for the next month.
The Canadiens are in the conference finals for the first time since 1993, which was also when they won the last of their record 24 Stanley Cup titles.
The Habs have been able to knock off higher seeds in this postseason thanks to a total team effort on defense, timely goal-scoring from forwards Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri, and superb puck-stopping from goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
Cammalleri and Gionta, with 12 and seven goals, respectively, have accounted for nearly half of the Canadiens' 39 goals in this postseason and Cammalleri's goal total is the most by a Montreal player since Guy Lafleur also had 12 in the 1975 postseason.
Halak, meanwhile, has stopped 420 of the 450 shots thrown his way for a mind- boggling .933 save percentage.
But, as cliche as it sounds, this truly has been a team effort for the Canadiens. Cammalleri and Gionta are providing most of the offense, and Halak is taking care of business at his end, but in between are a group of guys that have completely bought into the system put in place by head coach Jacques Martin.
This emphasis on team was clearly illustrated in the series victory over Pittsburgh. Already without defenseman Jaroslav Spacek since early in the Washington series, the Canadiens lost their top blueliner Andrei Markov to an ACL tear in Game 1 against the Pens. Of course Markov's injury meant more responsibility for defensemen like Hal Gill and rookie P.K. Subban, but Martin also needed his forwards to step up and help slow down Pittsburgh's relentless offense.
And that's just what Montreal did, the club came together and made it their main priority to frustrate the Penguins and it worked time and time again. In the end, Pittsburgh, which exploded for six goals in Game 1, scored a total of 12 times in Games 2-7.
The good news is Spacek returned for the final two games against Pittsburgh, and there is speculation that Markov could return at some point during the conference finals after it was originally believed he would miss the rest of the postseason. Markov is expected to miss tonight's game.
The Flyers, who will also host Game 2 on Tuesday, are 4-1 as the host in this year's playoffs after going 24-14-3 in Philadelphia during the regular season. This matchup marks the first time the Flyers have begun a series with home-ice advantage in the post-lockout era.
Montreal was 19-17-5 on the road prior to the start of the playoffs and has won five out of eight as the guest in the postseason.