The Rangers and Flyers have faced off 10 times in the postseason, and Thursday night will begin their 11th battle. Credit: Getty Images
The slate is clean for the Flyers and the Rangers. Which is good news for the Flyers. Those last ugly eight losses in New York in which they’ve been outscored 31-9 can be completely disregarded now that it’s playoff time. Win one of the first two on Broadway and suddenly the momentum shifts. Stun the experts by taking both and now it’s Philadelphia in the driver’s seat with three of the next four in its own building.
The playoffs are an entirely different animal than a game here and there in the regular season. Full attention is on that one team, not having to worry about tomorrow’s game in another city, followed by three games in four nights. You can probe that team to find its weaknesses, then adjust on the fly when you see what they’re doing.
And one more thing, which has to thrill Flyers’ fans. No more shootouts!
How it all translates down the road in a best-of-seven, where due to a screwy schedule Games 5, 6 and 7 will be played in a four-day span, is wide open to conjecture. Perhaps form — and home ice — will hold. Maybe the Flyers can break their Garden curse and take off from there.
Regardless, here’s an idea what to expect:
1. Traffic Jams
There’s no doubt Henrik Lundqvist is among the NHL’s elite goaltenders, in part due his extraordinary quickness and agility when he sees the puck coming his way. That’s why the Flyers have been stressing the need to throw a lot of bodies in his way to at least obscure that vision and perhaps redirect pucks. Leading goal scorer Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell have made a living just this way scoring those so-called “dirty goals," Simmonds particularly proficient when it comes to pouncing on rebounds.
The Rangers usually do it with more finesse, but if that doesn’t work they’re not averse to knocking Emery and/or Mason around a bit, either.
How much the refs allow the traffic to converge without calling penalties could go a long way towards deciding things.
2. Balance or Mediocrity?
The Flyers have seven 20-goal scorers, led by Simmonds, Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek. The Rangers have only two, Rick Nash and Brad Richards, but a bunch of others in the 15-20 goal range.
Does that mean these teams are well balanced or simply don’t have enough horses to ride? Should the Rangers succeed containing Giroux and the Flyers neutralize Nash and overall leading scorer Mats Zuccarello, who’s going to step up?
The Flyers would appear to have more candidates, with youngsters Matt Read, Brayden Schenn and Voracek the most dangerous. The Rangers counter with Derek Stepan, Derrick Brassard and versatile defenseman, Ryan McDonagh, whose other main task will be keeping Giroux under wraps, though he’ll be playing with a tender shoulder the Flyers may try to work on.
If the big guns are held in check, it’s often the foot soldiers who can make the difference.
3. Who’s More Special?
Special teams are always a focal point in the playoffs, where goals are usually hard to come by five-on-five. With these teams, though, the numbers are fascinating.
The Flyers ranked fifth on the power play, but were the deadliest team in the League with the man advantage while on the road. The Rangers struggle at the Garden (24th) but thrive in enemy rinks (7).
By the same token Craig Berube’s third-ranked penalty killers are more far more efficient on the road (2) than on home ice (10). Then again, so were the Rangers.
Based on that the power play could be the Flyers potential salvation in New York. And if it’s working on the road, the momentum just might shift when they return home. But Philadelphia also has to be wary not only about staying out of the box and realize despite going 0-2 here during the season, the Rangers tied for the NHL’s third best road record, 25-14-2.
Whoever holds the edge will probably win the series.
4. Block Parties
Nothing’s more frustrating for a player than to wind up for a shot or try to pass to an open teammate, only to have it blocked. Welcome to life in the Rangers’ zone, where Dan Girardi, McDonagh and Kevin Klein specialize in disrupting teams with their uncanny shot blocking. It’s tough enough for teams beating Lundqvist (2.36 goals against). What can make it even more maddening is seeing all the pucks that never even get to him.
But the Rangers aren’t the only ones good at this. Flyers newcomer Andrew MacDonald — just signed to a long-term extension — and Nicklas Grossmann ranked first and sixth in that department respectively. Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Mark Streit won’t hesitate to drop down, either and Flyers forwards are notorious for sacrificing their bodies trying to break up a play.
Keep in mind, though, if you’re patient enough to outwait the shot-blocker, you scoring chances vastly improve.
5. Will Old Lightning Strike?
Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis played 12 years together in Tampa Bay and won the 2004 Stanley Cup. But now they’re on opposite sides, newcomers to this rivalry, both coming off disappointing regular seasons.
The 33-year-old Lecavalier signed a five-year free agency deal with the Flyers, but not until the tail end of the season — when he was shifted from left wing to fourth line center — has he really seemed to recapture a semblance of his old self. Still 20 goals and 17 assists — his poorest season since 2001 — wasn’t what they signed up for.
St. Louis wound up in a feud with management in part for being initially left off Team Canada. Then when the Rangers ran into a contract impasse with captain Ryan Callahan, the teams swapped problem children. But after scoring 29 goals in 62 games with the Lightning the 38-year-old St. Louis has been a Broadway flop so far with just one goal and seven assists in 19 games.
But playoffs are a chance for players to rewrite the script, especially skill players like Lecavalier and St. Louis who still feel they have something to prove.
If either does it could tilt the series.
Let’s say this first. Despite what the standings say the Flyers are the better team. They have better — and more skill players. Their defense can hold its own with anyone, with Timonen, MacDonald, and Streit providing the kind of offense McDonagh and Girardi give the Rangers. With Mason’s status suddenly iffy due to a late-season "upper body" injury , the Rangers would appear to have edge in goal, where Lundqvist can be brilliant at times.
But from first-hand experience Emery know injuries are unpredictable. Last year in Chicago he was sidelined at the start of the playoffs, so Corey Crawford got the call. Emery never got back in net, watching while Crawford guided the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. Maybe this is his redemption.
What the Rangers have going for them is their mystifying dominance on home ice, coupled with the knack of getting under the Flyers skin and drawing stupid penalties.
But Berube has drummed into his team how critical it is to stay out of the box. He’s also made it clear that past Garden transgressions mean nothing now. It’s a fresh start beginning tonight.
Which is why whoever they have in goal the Flyers will reverse the curse and move on to meet the Penguins-Blue Jackets survivor.