The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers have one of hockey’s great rivalries. They’ve been bitter division rivals since the 1974-75 season, so it’s no surprise that they’re bringing their mutual dislike for each other to this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The real tragedy here is that it took so long to get this playoff matchup to happen. The last time these two teams met in a playoff series was the 1997 Eastern Conference Final, which the Flyers won in 5 games. Think about that for a minute–with all the history between these two teams, it has been 17 years since we’ve seen a Flyers-Rangers playoff game. Seventeen. That’s so long, there is only one player from those two teams that is still playing in the NHL–the New Jersey Devils’ Dainius Zubrus (who was a rookie for the Flyers that year). Keep that in mind–I guarantee it’ll be a trivia question at some point during this series. If that isn’t damning evidence that the NHL’s old playoff format was broken, I don’t know what is.
Why the Rangers Will Win – by Category
OFFENSE: This is the toughest category to gauge. The Flyers bring a great deal of offensive firepower, ranking 8th in the NHL in goals scored with Claude Giroux leading the way. What makes the Flyers truly dangerous, though, is their depth. This team has 7 players with 20 or more goals this season, while the Rangers have only two players who have reached that plateau (Nash and Richards). The wild card for the Rangers is Martin St. Louis. He has struggled since coming over from the Tampa Bay Lightning for former captain Ryan Callahan, but he’s a proven playoff performer, and could very well start pouring goals in at any time. Rick Nash has also been under-performing as a Ranger, but that was in part due to injury and attempting to return from injury too soon. All indications are that he is fully healthy and ready to go this time around.
Both Nash and St. Louis have taken a lot of flak from the New York media on their less-than-stellar numbers. Such criticism misses a very important point. Their lack of production has been due, in large part, to opposing defenses smothering the pair. This effectively opens up the ice for the Rangers secondary scorers, such as Extra Effort Award winner Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard. Secondary scoring is huge in the playoffs, when stars are given much more attention from opposing defenses. This secondary scoring is already happening for the Rangers–they have 9 players with 15 or more goals, while the Flyers only have 7.
This current Rangers team is not shy about shooting the puck–only the San Jose Sharks have more shots per game this year than the Rangers. However, this increased shot production has not resulted in goals, as the Rangers sit at 18th in the league in scoring. If Nash and St. Louis can regain their scoring touch, this category could be a toss-up. If not…
DEFENSE: This has been the Rangers bread and butter again this year. They rank fourth in the NHL in goals allowed this season, while the Flyers are at 20th. And this is for a Rangers defense that, over the season’s first ten games, could be charitably described as “porous”. The Rangers’ young defense corps have grown into their roles, and are now a force to be reckoned with. The top pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have done extremely well while consistently matching up against other teams’ top lines. In fact, of all the regular Rangers’ defensemen, only Marc Staal (at -1) has a negative plus/minus rating. McDonagh in particular has become a top-tier NHL defenseman, eclipsing his career highs for goals (14), assists (29), and points (43), and even working his name into the Norris Trophy conversation. It seems that McDonagh has already gotten into the head of Flyers coach Craig Berube, as the coach has already talked about changing his team’s approach to attacking the Rangers’ defenseman. When a coach makes a tactical change before the first playoff game is even played, it’s usually not a good sign. The Rangers have been prone to defensive lapses at critical times this year–they will need to tighten things up in their zone, but they still have the advantage here. If the Rangers will win, it will be behind their defense… and their goalie.
GOALTENDING:The Flyers’ goaltending situation is in flux right now. With starter Steve Mason still suffering from an “upper-body injury” sustained late in the season, the burden falls on journeyman backup Ray Emery to carry the load. Emery will start for the Flyers in game 1 and will likely be the game 2 starter as well. Emery has been a stable backup this year, carrying a goals against average of 2.96 and a save percentage of .903, but that won’t be enough if Henrik Lundqvist continues his domination of Philadelphia. The Flyers have struggled to solve King Henrik, especially at MSG, where they have been held to a single goal in each of this year’s two games. In the end, whether the Flyers have Mason, Emery, or even rookie Calvin Heeter in net, their goalie will have to do more than match Lundqvist save-for-save. With the number of shots the Rangers figure to be directing on net, the Flyers need their netminder to be better than Lundqvist (who has a 2.36 GAA and a .920 Sv. % in an “off year”). I just don’t see that happening for more than a game or two–certainly not through a full 7-game series.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Rangers power play, while not as awful as last year, has still been hit-and-miss. They are in the middle of the pack this season at 15th in overall PP% (18.2%). The power play has been much better on the road, where their 21.2% effectiveness puts them 7th. The Flyers power play ranks 8th overall in the NHL, and has been much more consistent (19.7%). Wayne Simmonds in particular has been huge for the Flyers’ PP, scoring a team-leading 15 PP goals this year.
The penalty kill is strong for the Rangers–consistent with their overall defensive strength, they have the 3rd best PK% (85.3%) in the NHL heading into the playoffs. They are also tied for third in short handed goals scored , while the Flyers have allowed the 3rd most SH goals. The Flyers also have a very good PK unit, ranking 7th overall (84.8%).
The Rangers scored a pair of power play goals in the third period of game 1, so there is hope for the PP there, but the Flyers have a more dangerous power play unit overall. Even with their better penalty killing, the Rangers need to keep their heads and not get drawn into retaliating against the Flyers’ irritation tactics. The Rangers will win if they can remain at even strength, but could easily get into trouble with any amount of stupid penalties.
OVERALL: In the end, this series is about two teams that are still very evenly matched. With game 1 in the books, it’s obvious that the Rangers have decided to stick with their “speed and skill” game plan, rather than trying to out-muscle Philly. Nowhere was this more apparent than in coach Alain Vigneault’s decision to dress the appropriately-named Jesper Fast (who tallied his first NHL assist in game 1) over Daniel Carcillo (who has consistently gotten under his former team’s skin this season). We’ll have to see if AV will continue to take the high road and not fall into the same trap that doomed the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012. If the Rangers can continue to play their speed and skill game, avoid stupid retaliation penalties, and keep their heads in their own zone, the Rangers will win and we could see this series end much earlier than anyone expected. After all, game 1 proved the old adage that Philly can’t hit what they cannot catch. If the Rangers fail in any of these areas, though, rest assured the Flyers will pounce.