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The National Hockey League's playoffs are often considered the most exciting of the "Big Four" sports leagues in the U.S., even without a four-and-a-half-month break and an expansion to include 24 of the league's 31 teams.

But this NHL postseason had both — a delicious combination that had fans eager to see which teams could get hot at the right time and make a spirited run to the Stanley Cup.

So far, after the play-in round of competition, one of those teams appears to be the Philadelphia Flyers.

Despite suffering through one of their worst seasons over the last decade in 2019, the Flyers aren't exactly a Cinderella team; they had the best record in the league this season after Jan. 8 and entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

They picked up where they left off in March by going 3-0 with a combined score of 11-3 against the top three teams in the East (4-1 over No. 1 Boston, 4-1 over No. 2 Tampa Bay and 3-1 over No. 3 Washington).

Those weren't only the top three teams in the East; they were Nos. 9, 1 and 2, respectively, in goals scored per game in the regular season. All three averaged more than 3.2 goals per game, but Philadelphia held them to one goal apiece.

At the center of this defensive breakout is goaltender Carter Hart, who turns 22 years old on Thursday. He was no slouch during the regular season — his 2.42 goals allowed average (GAA) and 91.4% save percentage were both above league average. But since the postseason began, his 1.00 GAA and 96.6% save percentage are tops in the league among goalies who have played multiple games.

Veteran goalie Brian Elliott started against the Washington Capitals and also performed well, allowing one goal on 17 shots.

The goalies don't deserve all the credit, though. The Flyers' defense, which allowed the fewest shots on goal per game in the regular season, is leading the league again so far this postseason. Three of the last four Stanley Cup champions have ranked in the top three in either goals allowed per game or shots allowed per game in the playoffs, and the Flyers are currently No. 1 in both.

Philadelphia's upcoming opponent, the No. 12-seeded Montreal Canadiens, knocked off No. 5 Pittsburgh in the play-in round. Montreal features former league MVP Carey Price, Hart's childhood idol, in the net. The same thing happened in the Western Conference: No. 12 Chicago defeated No. 5 Edmonton, which had the top two point-earners in the regular season in Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.

Anything can happen in postseason hockey, but after alternating missing the playoffs and first-round exits over the last seven seasons, Philadelphia could earn its first Stanley Cup title since 1975 on the strength of its defense.

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