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Playoff hat trick: Make it three Game 7s after Flyers' Wayne Simmonds breaks out vs. Rangers

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PHILADELPHIA — The members of the ice crew looked like they were raking leaves, pushing the hats into huge piles, stuffing them into green garbage bags, dumping them into white bins on wheels. Hundreds of hats flew from the stands Tuesday night after Wayne Simmonds’ hat trick, and they kept falling as the ice crew worked. Hundreds of hats – 639 by official count.

And one shoe.

Someone threw a neon yellow sneaker, too. You do what you have to do in the playoffs, even if it means walking down Broad Street in the rain with a cold, wet foot. The Philadelphia Flyers went on to beat the New York Rangers, 5-2, and we don’t have to wait for the other shoe to drop. We have another Game 7 on Wednesday night to finish the first round.

[Related: Steve Mason, Wayne Simmonds lift Flyers to victory in Game 6]

The Los Angeles Kings will try to beat the San Jose Sharks after rallying from a 3-0 series deficit, and the Sharks will try to escape after blowing a 3-0 series lead – and try to avoid another playoff disappointment and maybe an offseason shakeup. The Colorado Avalanche will try to close out the Minnesota Wild after taking 2-0 and 3-2 series leads, and the Wild will try to take the next step in the organization’s evolution.

But first, Flyers-Rangers, Madison Square Garden. This has not been a bitter battle between two old rivals for the most part. It has been bland. It has been boring, even. Yet it has been back and forth, and thanks largely to Simmonds and Flyers goalie Steve Mason, these teams will meet in a Game 7 for only the second time ever and for the first time since 1974. The prize: a second-round meeting with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team both feel they can beat.

“We’re not ready to go home yet,” Simmonds said.

Simmonds had never scored more than two playoff goals in a season until Tuesday night. Then he scored three in one game – all within a few feet of the net. He went where a 6-foot-2 power forward should go, and the puck found him there. He banged home a rebound on the power play in the first period. He banged home a pass from Brayden Schenn in the second, after Schenn swiped the puck from defenseman Dan Girardi along the boards. He added another power-play goal later in the second, deflecting a shot, giving the Flyers a 4-0 lead, making it rain headwear (and footwear).

“He was all over the puck,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux. “He was jumping everywhere. He was strong on the puck. I think when Wayne wants to win the battle, he wins it and kind of gives everyone in the room a little motivation to do the same.”

[Watch: Captain America celebrates Simmonds' hat trick]

Mason had never won a playoff game until this season. Then he came back from an upper-body injury and made 37 saves as the Flyers won Game 4, 2-1, and he made 34 in this one – some of them spectacular. He stoned Anton Stralman in the first, when the Flyers kept turning over the puck and the Rangers kept pressuring. He gloved a shot by Benoit Pouliot in the second, with the Rangers on the power play. He robbed Carl Hagelin twice in the third – knocking down a shot with his glove to foil a breakaway, sliding to his right and using his glove again to foil a chance on the rush.

Say what you want about Mason. Call him an average goalie, or an inconsistent goalie, or whatever. He was outstanding on a night when Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist got yanked after two periods and said this: “They did pretty much everything better than us, even goaltending.” Even goaltending, the King said. Even after Mason lost his shutout and gave up a couple of goals in the third, the fans chanted his last name.

“Those are moments that send chills down your spine,” Mason said. “You’ve got 20,000 people chanting your name. Those type of moments don’t happen too often, so it’s kind of nice to take it in.”

Another moment comes now, though. It seems bigger for the Rangers than it does for the Flyers.

The Rangers fired coach John Tortorella after last season and replaced him with Alain Vigneault. Torts had worn out everyone with his defensive style and abrasive personality. After a slow start, the Rangers adjusted to Vigneault, opened up a bit and became one of the NHL’s better possession teams.

But are they better under Vigneault than they were under Torts, or are they just different? This is the third straight season they have gone to Game 7 in the first round. In 2012, they made it to the Eastern Conference final. In 2013, they made it to the second round. Now what? They had a chance to end this in Game 6, and they lost for the 12th straight time when they had a series lead, an NHL record.

[Also: Simmonds on Clippers owner Donald Sterling: 'Make him sell the team']

The Rangers have gone four straight games without a power-play goal. Rick Nash has put up good possession numbers, but he has zero goals in this series and only one goal in 18 playoff games as a Ranger – despite taking 67 shots. He was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets to put the puck in the net, not just on the net.

The Flyers did not make the playoffs last season, and they got off to a horrible start under coach Peter Laviolette. They rebounded under new coach Craig Berube and ended up having a hell of a season. Expectations are always high in Philadelphia, but whatever the Flyers do in these playoffs tastes like gravy.

At times in this series, they haven’t seemed themselves. They haven’t been aggressive. But that was not the case in Game 6. They turned over the puck too much in the early going, but they got away with it and got rolling. “The passion and the skating and the tenacity out there was really good,” Berube said.

The Flyers have struggled at MSG. But they won there in Game 2, and if they win Game 7, they will have won back-to-back games as they take on the Penguins – the team they upset in a crazy, wide-open first-round series two years ago.

“If we win Game 7,” Giroux said, “it’s going to feel even more special because it’s over there.”

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