Wed 16 Apr 2014
New York Rangers fans should thank Gary Bettman and the new NHL playoff structure for a couple of reasons. First off if the NHL were using last year’s playoff system, the Rangers would be matched up with the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference’s four-five matchup. Given how much of a nightmare the Bell Centre has been for Henrik Lundqvist that is a good thing – no matter how successful the Blueshirts have been on the road this season.
The second reason for being thankful is that the Rangers don’t play the Washington Capitals. Of course, a large part of the thanks for that has to go Alex Ovechkin and his teammates who were shut out of the playoffs – thus preventing a potential fifth playoff series in the last six seasons.
Instead, the Rangers get the opportunity to renew their hostilities with the hated Philadelphia Flyers. While there is hatred for the Devils and Islanders, it is strictly business. When it comes to the Flyers, it is all personal.
This season’s matchup marks the 11th time the Rangers and Flyers will do battle in the playoffs – tying them for the 10th most common playoff matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues who are renewing their playoff rivalry for the 11th time.
The Broadstreet Bullies lead the all-time series 6-4; including winning the last meeting between the two teams in 1997 when the Flyers won the Eastern Conference Finals in five games. That series marked the final playoff appearances for Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Richter and it marked the final Rangers playoff appearance for Brian Leetch.
It was also a series that featured a banged up Rangers team that turned to the likes of Ken Gernander and Dallas Eakins in order to fill out a lineup that featured 12 players who were at least 30-years-old.
The Rangers won Game 2 behind Wayne Gretzky’s hat trick to even the series, but the Flyers swept Games 3 and 4 before finishing off the Rangers in Game 5.
The playoff victory in 1997 was the Flyers third consecutive playoff victory over the Rangers. The last time the Blueshirts defeated the Flyers in the playoffs was during the team’s improbable run to the 1986 Eastern Conference Finals as a fourth placed Rangers team (78 points) defeated the first place Flyers (110 points) in a fifth and deciding game in Philadelphia.
Normally having home ice in a playoff series would be cause for celebration. At first glance, that appears to hold true with the Rangers and Flyers considering the Blueshirts have won eight in a row against Philly at MSG. However, a closer look at the two teams’ season records tell a little different story.
Among playoff teams, only the Detroit Red Wings (18) had fewer homes wins that the Rangers (20). While the Rangers accumulated 44 of their 96 points at home, the Flyers gained 51 of their 94 points at home.
The Rangers big advantage is that they have been road warriors this season as only Colorado (56 points) and Anaheim (54) racked up more road points than the Rangers (52, tied with Boston). The Rangers road record of 25-14-2 is made even more impressive when you consider they started the season with a 2-6 record in their first eight road games – thus finishing up with a sizzling 23-8-2 road record.
Brad Richards was at a loss for a concrete answer to the Rangers road-home swing.
“I’ve never been on a team with the best road record and this kind of home record,” Richards admitted to Jeff Z. Klein of the NY Times.
“Sometimes, there’s no rhyme or reason. There’s no real great answer for you — I’d love to make one up. But we don’t prepare any differently at home than we do on the road.”
Richards understands that certain parts of a team’s game can be swayed by the home crowd and offered Klein the following explanation.
“Certain things, like the power play, I understand how that sometimes can be better on the road than at home,” he said. “You’re not hearing the fans, you’re not trying to score in the first 10 seconds. You don’t consciously shoot because people are saying, ‘Shoot,’ but you just hear them get on you. But as far as the overall team game, I don’t have an answer.”
Marc Staal put home ice advantage in its proper context while speaking with Steve Zipay of Newsday on Tuesday, April 8.
“Home ice is big especially if you get later in the series, Game 7 is an advantage if you have that home ice,” Staal opined.
One wouldn’t think that it is imperative that the Rangers win Game 1, but I believe it is important for the Blueshirts to draw first blood. The last thing you want to do is give the Flyers even the slightest glimpse of having any advantage in the series. The longer the Flyers troubles at MSG last, the deeper the losing streak cements itself into Philly’s psyche.
It is a belief that the Flyers are bringing into this series.
“We’re obviously going to go there and try to get a split,” Scott Hartnell said to Sarah Baicker of csnphilly.com. “But if you get the first one, then you can go for two. We’re really going to put all our eggs in the one basket the first game and put it all on the line. I think that’s got to be the mindset of the game.”
In order for the Rangers to even contemplate making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they need to stop playing seven game series. You want to “grab and go” in terms of the playoff series, in other words, you want to get in and out as quickly as possible – and most especially in this series.
You can expect the Flyers to come out hitting from the opening faceoff and through the final whistle – and beyond. I don’t think the Rangers will have a problem with the Flyers in terms of “regular physical play”, but I do think they will have a problem with extracurricular activities that happen after every whistle – the type of play that turns every stoppage into a scrum.
It doesn’t matter who the player is or what kind of style he played before he joined the Flyers, but it seems that once someone puts on the orange and black they all take on the Broad Street Bully persona.
The longer the series goes, the more and more that will play a part in this series. With Games 6 and 7 being played on back-to-back nights, it might be a lot to ask the Rangers to go seven and then turn around and be ready to play against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that should make short work of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It is this potential for Flyers shenanigans that would tempt me to play Daniel Carcillo over Jesper Fast. Given Alain Vigneault’s style of play, I expect that he will opt to go with Fast’s speed and hockey abilities until circumstances dictate Carcillo’s style of play.
The Rangers recall of J.T. Miller might signify that the team is looking for a bit more jam in the lineup than Fast provides and a bit more finesse than Carcillo provides.
It is too bad that Chris Kreider’s status for the Philly series is unknown. He brings the best of what Fast and Carcillo can bring in terms of finesse, speed, scoring with just the right amount of chip on his shoulder. Unfortunately, at this time of year all teams are facing their own injury problems. At least the Rangers are assured of the return of Ryan McDonagh.
The question will be how far out of the way with the Flyers go to punish McDonagh’s shoulder and just how many liberties will they take – and you know the Flyers are going to take some liberties. This is just another reason why I would insert Carcillo instead of Fast/Miller.
The Flyers are not without their worries, chief among the health of goaltender Steve Mason who suffered an upper body injury (possible concussion) in Philly’s game against the Penguins on Saturday.
Mason will not be travelling with the Flyers when they make their way to New York. Ray Emery will get the start as rookie Cal Heeter serving as the backup. If Mason is healthy enough to play in Game 2, he could join the team for the Easter matinee.
While Emery did lead the Ottawa senators to the Stanley Cup Finals, that was seven years ago and I am sure the Flyers do not necessarily want to find out if Emery can recapture his 2007 playoff form.
That is not to say that the Rangers have iced away the series. Emery’s lifetime record against the Rangers is 7-2-0 with a 1.87 GAA and a .936 SV%. One of those two losses occurred in a 4-1 Rangers victory in January.
Interestingly enough, despite the spotty goaltending of the Flyers, there is one Philly reporter who thinks Henrik Lundqvist has not been a clutch goaltender in the playoffs.
Tim Panaccio of csnphilly.com is quick to point out Lundqvist’s 30-37 playoff record and only one appearance in an Eastern Conference Final.
What Panaccio conveniently forgot was the work The King put in against Ottawa in the 2012 Conference Quarterfinals, defeating the Senators in Games 6 and 7. Lundqvist duplicated this feat in the 2012 Conference Semifinals as the Rangers eliminated the Capitals.
Lundqvist repeated his performance last year by not only winning Games 6 and 7 against the Capitals, but he shut Washington out in both games.
I guess in Panaccio’s world, only goalies who win Stanley Cups can be deemed “clutch”.
Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers path to victory coming down to four keys.
1. Come playoff time, scoring goals becomes an even bigger imperative because all teams (unless you are the 2012 Flyers or Penguins) tend to become more aware of their defensive zone. As a result, the need to increase goal scoring becomes more important in the playoffs.
2. Hand-in-hand is the need to elevate special teams. The Rangers have demonstrated the ability to not only have one of the NHL’s best penalty killing units, but they have developed a knack for creating offense when shorthanded. The problem has been their power play which has shown signs of reverting to its pre-AV habits. The more the Rangers power play struggles, the more liberties the Flyers will take with the Rangers. The quickest way to neutralize the Broadstreet Bullies is to make them pay for taking penalties.
3. Keeping with the Broadstreet Bullies theme, the Blueshirts will have to learn to “walk the line”. That is the fine line of knowing when to “turn the other cheek” and when to retaliate. There is no iron clad rule on when to retaliate or not, but a simple solution might just be in it is a one-one battle – let it go. When the Flyers get into their pack mentality, it will be time for the Rangers to retaliate.
4. The last key is one that will ultimately determine how far the Rangers go in the 2014 playoffs. It has been great to see the likes of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello develop into productive players. However, the Rangers need their best players to be their best players. That means the likes of Lundqvist, McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, and Derek Stepan have to be the players who lead the way. When push comes to shove, this is the most important key to the Rangers playoff success. It is time for the stars to start playing up to the numbers on the backs of their hockey cards.
Before I give my prediction, I want to share an interesting side note that was written by Tim Wharnsby of CBC sports. Wharnsby noted that in 2004, Richards, St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier were leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup victory. Now 10 years later, Richards and St. Louis do battle against their former teammate.
By the way, Richards led the playoffs in scoring that year with 26 points and St. Louis finished second with 24 points.
In the end, the Rangers goaltending and ability to win games on the road lead the Blueshirts to hard fought victory in six games.