‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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It’s been 17 years since the Rangers and Flyers met in the playoffs. There’s a sense of enormity brewing ahead of what should be a memorable, tightly fought, blood-and-guts kind of series.
After all, Game 3 of the series bumped Miley Cyrus’ April 22 show at Wells Fargo Center to an alternate date — and, well — both of these teams will be coming at one another “like a wrecking ball.”
The current generation of Broad Street Bullies and Broadway Blueshirts absolutely despise one another and have been waiting a long time to dish out their pent-up aggression in the form of an epic, playoff grudge match. When these rivals take the ice on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, Game 1 could replicate a few scenes from film “Slap Shot.”
Nastiness aside, both the Flyers and Rangers are blessed with scoring depth. Seven Flyers scored 20 goals or more during the regular season, while nine Rangers registered 14 goals or more. The last time that nine Rangers tallied at least 14 goals in one season was that magical, curse-breaking Stanley Cup year of 1993-94.
Is that a coincidence? Or a sign that the Blueshirts finally have their strongest roster since Messier and Co. brought tears of joy to the streets of Manhattan? We’ll soon find out.
RANGERS WILL WIN THE SERIES IF: THEY SEIZE HOME-ICE ADVANTAGE, THE POWER PLAY GETS GOING AND ST. LOUIS GETS COMFORTABLE
The Rangers need to make Madison Square Garden an intimidating, raucous atmosphere from the very start of Game 1. One of the Rangers is going to have to score an early goal, or deliver a monster hit that will send the crowd into a frenzy. Too often the Rangers have been plagued by poor first-period starts that subdue the Garden atmosphere to groans rather than waves of inspiring noise.
Based upon the Flyers’ tendency to take undisciplined penalties, the Rangers will get plenty of chances on the power play. The Blueshirts finished the regular season with a middle-of-the-road 15th-ranked power-play percentage of 18.2.
Their power play was largely inconsistent throughout the regular season, especially given the disparity between their home and road power-play success rates. At home, the Rangers’ power play was a lowly 15.2 percent. On the road, the Blueshirts’ power play was a stout 21.2 percent.
Even with powerhouse winger Chris Kreider set to miss the entire series, power-play coach Scott Arniel has a collection of star pieces at his disposal. He just needs to get them all clicking in unison.
Recently, the Rangers put in a dominant 2-for-3 power-play performance against the Carolina Hurricanes — only to go a combined 0-for-7 in their final two regular-season games against the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens. The Carolina game showed that this team is capable of executing skillful passes and drawing opposing defensemen out of position. Rangers fans want to see more Jekyll and less Hyde.
After being acquired by the Rangers at the trade deadline, 38-year-old winger Martin St. Louis finished with one goal and eight points in 14 games. That kind of production was far below what anyone expected of the former Art Ross Trophy winner.
St. Louis’ game has continued to edge closer to the elite-level player Rangers fans were expecting. He’s had a lot of bad luck. Maybe his luck is going to change on the playoff stage which he’s dominated throughout his career.
FLYERS WILL WIN THE SERIES IF: THEY KEEP THEIR EMOTIONS IN CHECK, BLUE LINERS BEND BUT DON’T BREAK AND MASON MATCHES LUNDQVIST
After clinching third place in the Metropolitan Division and setting up a meeting with the rival Rangers, Flyers defenseman Hal Gill sang “New York, New York” in the shower for all the media to hear.
Gill and the entire Flyers roster is gunning for the chance to erase some ugly recent history. Dating back to 2011, the Flyers have lost eight consecutive games to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Broad Street Bullies will have to control their emotions if they wish to advance to round two.
The Flyers will give this series away if they take too many undisciplined penalties. Zac Rinaldo, Wayne Simmonds, Steve Downie and Scott Hartnell have a reputation for losing control. Head coach Craig Berbube must make sure his troops play with a controlled fire.
There’s a lot of age on the Flyers’ blue line. Kimmo Timonen logs a lot of minutes — but at 39, he has a lot of tread on his tires. Mark Streit is 36 and has a tendency to lose battles in the defensive zone. 39-year-old Gill has always been one of the slowest-moving and slowest-turning defensemen in the league. Reliable blue-liner Nicklas Grossmann has been slowed by a bad ankle. Trade-deadline acquisition Andrew MacDonald isn’t enough of a Band-Aid to cover the Flyers’ defensive weaknesses.
That means Steve Mason will be a busy man between the pipes. Mason suffered an upper-body injury on Saturday, but it appears he’s ready to go for round one.
The 25-year-old netminder finished the season strongly. Take a look at the final three months of his season:
February: 3-1-0 with a 1.91 goals-against average and .938 save percentage; March: 8-2-2 with a 2.48 GAA and .917 SV percentage; April: 2-1-0 with a 1.93 GAA and .935 SV percentage.
Mason has proven he’s a No. 1 goalie. Now he must prove he’s the kind of goalie who is capable of matching save for save with the all-world Henrik Lundqvist.
KEY PLAYER FOR THE RANGERS: RYAN MCDONAGH
Rangers fans can exhale because key defenseman Ryan McDonagh is 100 percent recovered ahead of the playoffs. His left shoulder is completely healthy.
McDonagh earned a considerable amount of Norris Trophy buzz, but Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks is the heavy favorite to come away with the award. McDonagh simply does not make mistakes in his own end and has been given the green light by head coach Alain Vigneault to pick and choose when to join the attack.
His offensive game has grown in leaps and bounds thanks to Vigneault’s trust in him. McDonagh recorded his best statistical season with 14 goals and 29 assists. He also logs an average of 24:49 minutes per game. That number will increase as the playoffs go on because McDonagh has become the Rangers’ most trusted and most valuable defenseman. Vigneault will lean on McDonagh to shut down the Flyers’ top line of Hartnell-Claude Giroux-Jakub Voracek.
KEY PLAYER FOR THE FLYERS: WAYNE SIMMONDS
Neither Giroux nor Voracek led the Flyers in goals in 2013-14. That honor belonged to forward Wayne Simmonds, who scored 29 goals.
Simmonds grew up in Ontario and played the early portion of his career in Los Angeles, but he was born to be a Flyer. He’s all-effort, all the time. Simmonds hits really hard and enjoys to get under the skin of opponents. The 6-foot-2 winger is one of those unique players who is both highly talented and an irritating pest.
The 25-year-old scored a team-best 15 power-play goals. He knows how to get himself into goal-scoring positions. Simmonds’ skates and shot are both deceptively quick. He’s getting better all the time and is a real favorite among the Philly faithful.
X-FACTOR FOR RANGERS: RICK NASH
Remember back on March 21 when Rick Nash played in Columbus for the first time as a visiting player? Nash transformed into an unleashed beast and won over a lot of Rangers fans who once questioned his intensity and fire.
“It was good to see how much of a force he could be,” teammate Anton Stralman said. “Not just with the puck, but also off the puck, finishing hits and just being a little more of a force out there.”
His fire boiled over too much, actually. Nash punched Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, fought Matt Calvert and spent nine minutes in the penalty box. Although Nash did not finish the game with a point, he put seven shots on goal and was a force throughout his Columbus return.
Rangers fans want to see more of an edge from Nash. He often unfairly gets labeled as soft, which isn’t the case. Nash isn’t Milan Lucic, but he knows how to use his size. Perhaps the poking and prodding Flyers will light the kind of fire under Nash that brings out his inner beast. We all know Nash has the ability to dominate a series on his own. This is his chance to silence his critics forever.
X-FACTOR FOR THE FLYERS: MATT READ
Because of all the big names the Flyers possess, 27-year-old winger Matt Read flies somewhat under the radar. Read scored 22 goals and contributed 18 assists this season. Standing only 5-foot-10 and weighing 185 pounds, Read doesn’t mind getting his nose bloody in front of the net and has sharp, goal-getting instincts.
Read possesses some outstanding wheels and is a dangerous player on the penalty kill because he’s able to quickly transition defense to offense. He led the Flyers with four shorthanded goals this season. The Rangers must pay close attention to this sneaky goal-getter.
PREDICTION: RANGERS IN 6
The lack of athleticism and aging legs of the Flyers’ blue line is a big concern. The Rangers possess a lot of shifty skaters in Mats Zuccarello, Carl Hagelin, Nash, Derick Brassard and Jesper Fast. It’s hard to bet against Lundqvist in this series. Rock-solid defensemen McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein will limit Lundqvist’s workload.
You can’t point to a shutdown defenseman on the Flyers’ roster. Mason will be the busier of the two goalies and the Flyers will probably take a costly penalty or two that could bite them hard at a crucial time. The Rangers will advance after a hard-fought, six-game epic.
Check back on Tuesday for Sean’s entire playoff rundown.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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