For the first time since 1997 one of the most heated rivalries in sports will be elevated to the grandest stage in hockey. The New York Rangers (45-31-6) will face off against the Philadelphia Flyers (42-30-10) in a clash of Metropolitan Division opponents. There is no doubt this series is going to be a war.
#2 New York Rangers vs. #3 Philadelphia Flyers
Season Series: Tied 2-2
Both coaches are in their first season with their respective teams. Alain Vigneault (NYR) and Craig Berube (PHI) have done their jobs in getting their teams to this point. Now with playoff hockey being a different beast all together, individually they now face a different set of challenges.
The Rangers only had two players to accomplish the same feat of 20 or more goals (subtracting St. Louis from that comparison – as he did score 30 times but only notched one with the Rangers in his time since being acquired from Tampa). Mats Zuccarello was the Rangers leading scorer this season with 59 points. As nice of a surprise as Zuccarello has been for New York – The Rangers need more from their highly paid, highly skilled forwards who at times seem to disappear. In 12 playoff games last spring Rick Nash mustered only 5 points and was a non-factor in New York’s series against Boston. He will have to be a difference maker this go around. Martin St. Louis hasn’t been posting the numbers the Rangers had hoped for when they acquired him. That said, in his last five games of the regular season he posted five points. St. Louis even told Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News:
“The last five or six (games) I’ve felt more like myself… I find myself more and more comfortable here each game.”
I’d say that Glen Sather and the New York Rangers are hoping that is true. I’ll mention the names of Brad Richards (who quietly returned to form) and Derek Stepan. Once these four guys have been mentioned, the talent at forward in the New York room significantly drops off to what looks like an average, or slightly below average roster. Carl Hagelin, Brian Boyle, and Derick Brassard are good bottom six guys but I don’t think they’re on the same level as some of the Flyers forwards.
Where the Rangers have the Flyers beat (on paper) is on the blue line and in goal. I’d like to believe everyone is already aware of “King” Henrik Lundqvist. He’s a former Vezina Trophy winner. He has the most wins in New York Rangers history. Although he’s lacked playoff success (due to no fault of his own), his resume speaks for itself. The defence core is led by Dan Girardi who was re-signed to a long term deal this year, and Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh had 43 points this season, scoring 14 goals. He sustained a shoulder injury on April 1, but insists he is “100% recovered.” As important as McDonagh is to his team’s success moving forward, the Rangers are deep on the back end. We have not even spoken of Marc Staal, Kevin Klein, Justin Falk, Raphael Diaz or Anton Stralman. This is a very solid group, definitely among the best in the NHL.
Adversely, the Flyers back end has suffered immensely since Chris Pronger succumbed to his injuries, ending his career. Mark Streit is a solid defenceman added last off-season. He’s been around the league for a number of years and has offensive upside (although his offensive numbers have consistently diminished over the last few seasons). Streit is no Chris Pronger, yet he is now without doubt the leader of the Philadelphia defence. Andrew MacDonald was a good deadline pick up and could be a big part of the future moving forward if both sides so choose. Kimmo Timonen has played better since the Olympic Break, and Nicklas Grossman will be sturdy in his own end. But Hal Gill, Brayden Coburn and Luke Schenn are all in my opinion – major risks.
It’s evident that Craig Berube and the Flyers have the deeper and more potent offense. The Flyers had seven different players this year score 20 or more goals. Minus his extremely slow start, Flyers Captain Claude Giroux proved that he is still an elite player in the NHL. He finished with 86 points, and his line mates (Hartnell and Voracek) finished with a combined 113 points – pretty solid numbers. That top line will be heavily relied on, no question. The Flyers depth at Forward will be there biggest strength in this series. Simmonds, Read, Voracek, Hartnell, Giroux, Schenn and Couturier just to name a few. Downie and Lecavalier were added in the off-season and early on in the year for even more depth. Lecavalier will no doubt be excited to face-off against his former teammate and line-mate from Tampa Bay, Martin St. Louis. They will play against one another in a playoff series for the first time in their careers.
That said, the biggest question mark is in between the pipes for the Flyers. Steve Mason has bounced back since leaving Columbus. He’s posted a .917% and will make his second playoff appearance (ironically in the same season that Columbus makes theirs). He was taken out of the Pittsburgh game last week after an awkward collision. It was said to be for precautionary reasons and he has since been cleared to play. On a side note and what I find to be very interesting – back up Ray Emery in his career against the New York Rangers is 7-2-0 with 1.87 GAA and a .936% (via ESPN), makes you wonder who the better option is. Although Emery will start game one for the Flyers – I would say almost undoubtedly we’ll be seeing Steve Mason.
Only two points separated these teams at the end of the regular season. Their special teams (both PP and PK) are within one percent of one another. Looking at recent trends – Philadelphia has the best road powerplay in the league, and the New York powerplay has struggled since the Olympics going 9/70. However I don’t think special teams are going to be the deciding factor in this series. I think this series will be won down low, 5-on-5.
Prediction Sure To Go Wrong:
Ultimately I think that the Rangers are going to take this in 7 games. Goaltending and defense wins you championships in the NHL. That’s what we’re going to see here – in what’s going to be the most intense match-up the first round. Because it’s the Cup.
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