On April 17, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers will face off in a first round playoff matchup representing the two and three seeds from the metropolitan division as a part of the new divisional NHL playoff structure. This series will mark the eleventh time the long time foes have met in the playoffs since the Flyers joined the league in 1967.
Broadway vs. Broad Street has offered some of the most intense playoff series in NHL history however the two teams have not met since the 1997 post-season after 10 series in 24 years from 1974-1997. This years matchup has been shown in the standings for nearly a month with the two jockeying for home-ice advantage. The teams split the regular season series 2-2 and the home team went undefeated through those four games. Despite the Rangers success at home against the Flyers they had a better record on the road than at home this season. Nonetheless, the two spot that the Rangers currently hold is of the upmost value based on how important home-ice was in this series this season.
For two of the NHL’s best second half teams, the Rangers actually come into the playoffs on a hotter streak having won 6 of the last 10 with points in 8 as opposed to the Flyers who won 4 of the last 10 and had points in 7. Other useful regular season stats leading into this series include the Rangers vast advantage in goal differential. The Rangers were a +25 while the Flyers were only +1. This was due in large part to the goals against category, the Flyers scored 18 more goals this season than the Rangers but the Rangers allowed 43 less goals, good enough for the fourth lowest goals against total in the league and first in the metropolitan division.
Goaltending will be a very important part of this series and is always integral to deep playoff runs. With Henrik Lundqvist in net for the Rangers, they always have a chance at making a serious push for the finals but the net is a place for concern for the Flyers. Both of these teams are considered dark horse championship contenders but with Steve Mason listed as out for Game 1 and likely Game 2, the duties will be left to veteran backup Ray Emery. It is tough to imagine the Flyers living up to their potential if Mason does not get healthy by Game 3’s return to the city of brotherly love.
New York will also be monitoring the injury report as Chris Kreider, the Rangers young first line winger who started his career with a monstrous break-out playoff campaign, is still ailing from a hand injury. Top defenseman Ryan McDonagh will be making his return to the ice after missing the final five games due to an injury which resulted from a dirty hit delivered by Alex Burrows that somehow didn’t get noticed by the league office.
Many other key players in the series are going to have to balance aggressive play with staying healthy through what promises to be among the hardest series to grind out across the league. Wayne Simmonds will be key for the Flyers as he sets the tone physically and it will be important that the Rangers fourth line is able to play meaningful minutes, as they have of late, in order to combat the physical nature present throughout the Philadelphia lineup. Claude Giroux and Rick Nash will look to establish themselves as the premier scores they have been for years after two of the streakiest seasons in the entire NHL. Former teammates Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier will be the series x-factors. For Lecavalier, it has been a solid but less than spectacular debut season in Philadelphia and St. Louis has had well-documented struggles since joining the Rangers at the trade deadline. Whichever one of these veterans puts up more points will likely see another round of hockey in their future and perhaps a chance at another Stanley Cup on their resume.
There is no love lost between these two bitter rivals but the styles of play are very different since the arrival of Alain Vigneault in the big apple. The Rangers under John Tortorella had a similar style to the Flyers current identity under rookie coach Craig Berube: smashmouth, grind it out, physical hockey. The Flyers had the highest penalty minute total in the regular season and will likely try to beat up the Rangers in order to be the first team to reach 4 wins. On the other side, the Rangers will look to continue their progress in Vigneault’s run ‘n’ gun system. The battle between two rookie coaches in two of the highest profile coaching jobs in the league is just another wrinkle in this highly anticipated series.
Both the Rangers and Flyers will need to play strong hockey, maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses in order to continue their decades long quests to return the Stanley Cup to their respective cities. As far as first round matchups go, this one seems nearly too good to be true. A concern for both groups is whether the team that makes it out of this brutal series will be able to find the energy to win 12 more hockey games? We will just have to wait and see, for now it is the series we all wanted to see. You gotta love playoff hockey!