Well, it’s playoff time and the New York Rangers have a “professional agitator” in their lineup who drives other teams (and their fans) insane. Sound familiar? This year, Daniel Carcillo is the new Sean Avery, and his hate/hate relationship with Philly is obviously a big storyline for their first round series with the Philadelphia Flyers. Heading into tonight’s game 4, he has already made his mark on the series and we see no reason to believe that will change. Believe it or not, though, there are other compelling storylines for this series besides Mr. Carcillo–we’ll break down 5 of them here.
Will Goaltending Continue to be the Flyers’ Achilles Heel?
The Flyers’ goaltending problems have been no secret. Not too long ago, Ilya Bryzgalov was supposed to be the answer. Two poor seasons and one amnesty buyout later, the Flyers are left with a goaltending tandem of Steve Mason and Ray Emery. Mason, who has been injured, will get his first start of the postseason in game 4. Emery played well in games 1 and 2, but struggled in game 3, allowing 4 goals on only 20 Rangers shots. All indications are that Mason is 100% healthy, but he’s sure to be tested early by a Rangers team that has been using their speed and skill to win games. If the Blueshirts start game 4 like they have the other games of this series, he will not have time to shake off any rust (he has not played in a game since April 12 vs. Pittsburgh–and two weeks can feel like a lifetime in playoff hockey). Emery can excel in the backup role, but has shown that he cannot carry the team as a starter–something that Mason has done regularly this year. A healthy and rested Mason can be the series-changer that Philly needs–but will he be able to regain his form quickly enough to do it?
Can the Flyers’ Top Line Get Going?
So far in this series, the Flyers’ top line of Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Jakub Voracek have combined for a grand total of 6 points, but only a single goal. That lone goal (from Voracek) happened to be in game 2, which the Flyers won. That’s no coincidence. The scoring of this line is what drives victories for this Philadelphia Flyers team. Giroux in particular needs to lead this team if they are to advance further in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. And leading means more than just guaranteeing a win in game 4. Giroux needs to do what he does best–put the puck in the net. Otherwise, his guarantee is just more bulletin board material for the Rangers.
If anything, game 3 showed us that generating goals will be easier said than done for the Flyers. They will need to get shots around, or through, the Rangers’ defense, which blocked 28 shots in game 3 alone. Old habits die hard, and the Rangers seem to be taking new coach Alain Vigneault’s more freewheeling style and coupling it with old coach John Tortorella’s shot blocking and defensive responsibility. The combination can be a deadly one, because if the Flyers push too hard in the offensive zone (to get around the shot-blocking), they leave themselves vulnerable to the long stretch passes that are a hallmark of Vigneault-coached teams. It’s a tall order, but the Flyers’ top line certainly has the skills to break through and change the tone of the series.
Daniel Carcillo vs. Everyone in Orange and Black
You knew this was coming. It had to have been in the back of everyone’s mind the moment the Rangers announced that they had acquired Carcillo from the Los Angeles Kings. What would happen when the former Flyer agitator steps on the ice against his old team? Game 3 showed us–plenty of penalties, lots of after-the-whistle mayhem, a Carcillo goal thrown in for good measure, and then there’s the celebration after said goal (anyone offended by the sight of an extended middle finger or two will want to keep scrolling):
Yes, Carcillo (much like former Ranger Sean Avery) excels at pushing people’s buttons. When Avery was with the Rangers, he brought that same emotion to the games. While he frequently stepped way over the line, the fact remained that Rangers were a better team when he was in the lineup. It didn’t take long for this to be called “The Avery Effect.” Now, the Flyers need to deal with “The Carcillo Effect.” Carcillo antagonizes everyone on the other team, and as long as he doesn’t step over the line, the Rangers play better. The proof? The Rangers were 19-9-3 in the regular season with Carcillo in the lineup–and he was a key factor in their game 3 victory. If the Flyers fall prey to his antics and allow him into their heads, they feed the Carcillo Effect–and the former Flyer will become a Flyer-killer.
Jason Akeson – Game Changer?
Jason Akeson became the story of game 1 for all the wrong reasons. He took a double-minor for high sticking Carl Hagelin in the third period of that game, while the score was tied 1-1. The Rangers then scored twice on the ensuing power play en route to a 4-1 victory. The backlash from the Philly fans was immediate, blaming him for the loss. Even then, however, his positive contributions had been noticed. Coach Craig Berube noticed them as well–playing him again in game 2. Akeson responded with his first career NHL playoff goal in a game the Flyers won 4-2. His game 1 mistake aside, Akeson has been consistently good for the Flyers in the playoffs. If their first line continues to struggle, they will become more and more dependent on secondary scoring if they want to extend their season. Enter Jason Akeson. He has proven that he can score, with 53 points in 62 games for the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms this year. It’s certainly not a stretch to see him being a completely different kind of story once this series is over.
Will the Tampa Bay Connection Keep Leading the Way for the Rangers?
In a trade deadline deal that shocked many of the Blueshirt faithful to the core, the Rangers traded longtime captain and fan-favorite Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Martin St. Louis, reuniting St. Louis with longtime teammate and friend Brad Richards. The reunion has seemed to spark both players. After struggling to find the net in his first games as a Ranger, St. Louis has been the Rangers’ best player in the playoffs. Through the first 3 games, he has scored 2 goals (including the game winner in game 3) and added 3 assists. He currently has a 6-game playoff points streak when playing against the Flyers.
For Richards, this postseason has given him a shot at redemption. He was never a factor last season, and finished the year as a healthy scratch in the Rangers’ final two playoff games. There was widespread speculation that he would be bought out over the summer, but the Rangers chose to keep him on-board. This decision has paid off, as he has contributed 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) already in this series. The financial reality of the post-lockout NHL is that the Rangers may not be able to afford Richards’ contract next year, with several key players approaching free agency. So the specter of an amnesty buyout remains for Richards, but he is making the best possible case for himself.
Of all the first round series this year, the Rangers/Flyers matchup has arguably provided the most entertainment value. With all these interlocking storylines, how could you not find anything compelling about these games? The last chapter still remains to be written, and we will be treated to at least two more games to see how these storylines wrap up. And as always–no spoilers, please.
Kevin has been covering the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers for The Hockey Writers since the 2013-14 season. Before that, he has written about, played, and coached hockey at all levels. He grew up a Rangers fan in the Southern Tier of New York State, but now lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and two sons. You can reach him on Twitter as @kmizTHW , or via email (email@example.com).