Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
When the NHL introduced this version of divisional playoffs, Rangers/Flyers is the type of series they had envisioned taking place on an annual basis. Long-time Patrick Divison rivals with plenty of history and dislike between one another. Surprisingly, they haven’t met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 1997 Eastern Conference Final, won by the Flyers.
The beginning of the season was a struggle for both. The Rangers were adjusting to a new head coach and new system, while playing the first month of the season on the road because of renovations at Madison Square Garden. The Flyers saw their top guns go cold early on and that helped lead to Peter Laviolette’s dismissal. By the time the NHL was taking its Christmas break in December, both teams were sitting on the outside of the playoff picture in the East.
Fortunately for the Flyers and Rangers, the holes they dug came with enough time left in the season, and with a little help from a weak conference, they managed to turn their seasons around, see their stars finally awake and get back into the playoffs.
New York Rangers (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (3)
April 17: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers, 7 p.m. ET.
April 20: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers, 12 p.m. ET.
April 22: New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers, 8 p.m. ET.
April 25: New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers, 7 p.m. ET.
April 27: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers, 12 p.m. ET*
April 29: New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers, TBA*
April 30: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers, TBA*
The Rangers were hoping when they acquired Martin St. Louis from the Tampa Bay Lightning for captain Ryan Callahan that being reunited with old pal Brad Richards would result in the defending Art Ross Trophy winner being a big contributor offensively. So far, it hasn’t been the case with St. Louis scoring once and assisting on seven others since the deal.
Richards, along with Rick Nash (26), were the team’s only 20-plus goal scorers, but it’s been the third line pairing of Mats Zuccarello (19 goals, 59 points), Derick Brassard (18 goals, 45 points) and Benoit Pouliot (15 goals, 36 points) who’ve been big contributors. The three have been big drivers of possession, all north of 53-percent Corsi ratings.
Adding to their scoring depth will be Carl Hagelin (17 goals) and 2012 playoff superstar Chris Kreider (17 goals), when he returns from a hand injury.
The reason why the Flyers got off to such a horrid start was because their stars slumped, led by Claude Giroux, who didn’t score his first goal until his 16th game of the season. Once Craig Berube replaced Peter Laviolette and their top guys began contributing, they quickly rose up the Eastern Conference standings.
Giroux would finish with 28 goals and 86 points, playing his way into the Hart Trophy conversation. Wayne Simmonds can be physical without the puck (105 PIMs), but also score when it’s on his stick. He scored a career high 29 goals and registered 60 points. Simmonds and Scott Hartnell (52 points) were two of only three NHL players to finish with 20-plus goals and 100-plus penalty minutes (David Backes was the other).
Matt Read was another guy who had a slow start, but ended up with 22 goals. Vincent Lecavalier, who’s spent time on the fourth line, showed he’s not done yet and finished with 20. Jake Voracek (23 goals, 62 points) and Brayden Schenn (20 goals) will round out the group who will be trying to figure out ways to beat Henrik Lundqvist over seven games.
We can’t forget about Sean Couturier, who’s will be look upon to shut down New York’s big guns.
There were only three teams who had stingier defenses than the Rangers. Finishing fourth in the NHL with 2.32 goals allowed per game, they were helped by the top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. They lead the team playing over 23 minutes a night, combining for 67 points and share the bigger load in defensive zone starts.
A healthy Marc Staal and Anton Stralman, who’s a top-10 blue liner in puck possession, provide a solid second pairing. In acquiring Kevin Klein from Nashville and Raphael Diaz from Montreal, general manager Glen Sather brought depth to the group. Klein is of a defense-first mind, while Diaz brings another right-handed shot to the power play.
This might be the last kick at the can for 39-year old Kimmo Timonen. Despite his age, Timonen finished another season averaging over 20 minutes of ice time. He’s done that every season since his rookie campaign in 1998-99. And he does it all at even strength (18:13), on the power play (3:25) and shorthanded (3:24). Partner Braydon Coburn joins him in eating minutes (22:26).
Two former Islanders make up one half of each the second and third pairings. Mark Streit led the Flyers in scoring from the blue line with 10 goals and 44 points, 15 of them coming via the power play. Andrew MacDonald has yet to get going offensively since being dealt to the Flyers (0 points in 19 games), but he also sees time on both special teams units.
Luke Schenn sees more starts in the offensive zone, while Nicklas Grossmann is trusted in the defensive zone more. Both are Philadelphia’s two worst possession defensemen.
Henrik Lundqvist, much like his teammates, bounced back from a tough opening month to finish strong, posting a .920 save-percentage (.926 at even strength) and five shutouts. If the Rangers’ offense is having an off-night, Lunqvist can steal a game in a series for them. Aided by the emergence of Cam Talbot, King Henrik played 63 games and didn’t receive a heavy workload due to the Olympics.
Steve Mason’s status for Thursday’s series opener is still unknown at the moment after suffering an upper-body injury in their season finale. There are still plenty of questions about Mason and if he’s deserving of the extension handed to him by the franchise. We will find out soon enough.
New York enters the first round winners of six of their final 10 games and tired from writing the thank you notes they sent to the New Jersey Devils for helping them clinch a playoff spot.
The Flyers have won three of their last five, but only four of the final 10 games. But Claude Giroux followed on his early season prediction and helped the team make the playoffs with a two-goal night to clinch vs. the Florida Panthers.
While the Rangers embraced the change from John Tortorella to Alain Vigneault, it took them a while to fully grasp a new system. Their team speed is now on display and the players don’t have to worry about getting yelled at every time they make a mistake.
A new voice was needed in the Flyers’ room when they decided to bring in Craig Berube. Upon his move up the organization’s coaching depth chart, he stressed stronger defense and an improved work ethic. He also wasn’t afraid to put a distinguished veteran in Lecavalier on the fourth line. It’s paid off.
The switch to Vigneault did improve the power play success rate for the Rangers. Up from 15.7-percent in 2013, with the help of 13 different power play scorers, New York finished with an 18.2-percent success rate. Their penalty kill also improved, jumping from 81.1-percent to 85.3-percent. Most notable for their kill was their 10 shorthanded goals for.
The Flyers, meanwhile, went backward a bit, going from 21.6-percent last season to 19.7-percent this year on the power play, which was led by Wayne Simmonds’ 15 goals. Their penalty kill wasn’t much different, finishing seventh overall (84.8-percent) after a small drop.
SERIES SLOW JAM
"Black Street" - Blackstreet
"I wanna love you, hold you, squeeze you, please you. Let me do my thing tonight." The fans will love the physicality. The players will squeeze one another in the numerous scrums which are bound to happen. And one side will be pleased in the end. That's just how this rivalry works.
Players to watch.
SWIPE LEFT ON... Mats Zuccarello. The Norwegian hobbit was sidelined during the Olympics with a fractured hand, but returned to the lineup not long after and finished as the Rangers’ leading scorer with 59 points and chipped in 19 goals.
SWIPE RIGHT ON... Matt Read. The undrafted forward out of Bemidji State has become a solid all-around contributor for the Flyers, chipping in offensively and taking on power play and penalty kill responsibilities.
Both team have taken similar roads to get to this match-up. But in a seven game series, the Rangers’ defense and goaltending will be what helps them get by.
This is also a series featuring the most-penalized team in the NHL this season: the Flyers. The Rangers’ power play isn’t perfect, but in a series that could swing game-by-game, special teams will likely play a vital role in what expects to be a physical match-up.
Rangers in seven.