The Rangers and Flyers have a long history of animosity toward each other. Now they get to rekindle that rivalry in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
New York is a mediocre 13-7-3 since the Olympic break in mid-February, so they're not exactly entering the playoffs riding a hot streak. But they've certainly looked better in the second half after starting out just 3-6 on a nine-game roadtrip to begin the season.
The Flyers had a brutal start to the season of their own. They were just 1-7 before a home win against the Rangers on Oct. 24 got them started in the right direction. They've also mirrored the Rangers since the Olympic break with an unremarkable 12-7-4 record down the stretch.
So what will prove to be the difference in the two teams' first-round series? We take a look at five storylines to watch:
1. Healthy returns
The Rangers suffered in the final months of the season with a few key injuries — one thanks to the Olympic break itself. Mats Zuccarello was enjoying the best season of his career before fracturing his hand in Sochi. He bounced back quickly though, missing just two weeks instead of the forecast three to four. He has four goals and 12 assists since returning. Those four goals came in just two games though. Chris Kreider's broken hand has kept him out for the last three weeks, but he did return to the ice in practice last week. He's likely to be back, but when is still up in the air. The biggest injury of all may be Olympic defenseman Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh, once of the best at his position in the league, hasn't played since injuring his shoulder April 1. But he assured reporters this week he will be ready to go in Game 1.
2. Gateway to a title run
When the Rangers made the blockbuster trade for Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline — and dealt captain Ryan Callahan in the process — the results were expected to show immediately. They didn't. St. Louis had 29 goals and 32 assists with Tampa Bay, but just one goal and seven assists in the 19 games he's played with New York. With Kreider a question mark, it's more important than ever for St. Louis to return to his usual form. The trade will look even worse if the team clearly misses Callahan's leadership when it matters most — the postseason.
3. Good to be king
Henrik Lundqvist isn't getting any younger. The Rangers goaltender has had tremendous success in the regular season — and a gold medal in 2006 — but has yet to break through in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The five-time Vezina Trophy finalist hasn't even had a chance to compete for the Cup. The Rangers have made the playoffs all but one season during Lundqvist's tenure, but have just one conference finals appearance — a loss to the hated Devils in 2012 — to show for it. The Stanley Cup playoffs have always been about goaltending. It's time for the King, now 32 years old, to claim his Cup.
4. A certain Vign-tage
Sure, the Rangers hired first-year head coach Alain Vigneault to get them to the postseason, but John Tortorella had no problem doing that either. What can Vigneault do in the playoffs which Tortorella could not? Oddly, the two have similar recent histories — tremendous regular season success with letdowns in the playoffs. The Vigneault hire was made to pick things up on offense, but they actually scored 2.7 goals per game last season versus 2.6 goals per game this season. Will Vigneault's style be more effective in the playoffs?
5. The vets
Rick Nash and Brad Richards seem to have faded into the background this season trade talk about Callahan and Dan Girardi, a new coach and the emergence of Zuccarello, Kreider and even Derek Stepan. But the 29-year-old Nash and 33-year-old Richards are still the most well-known names on the Rangers. It's been 10 years since Richards won a Cup with Tampa Bay and Nash played in just one postseason before joining New York. Nash is making $7.8 million this season, while Richards is paid $6.66 million. It's time the highest-paid and third-highest paid (behind Lundqvist) players on the roster earn their keep.
Follow Metro New York Sports Editor Mark Osborne on Twitter @MetroNYSports.