The new playoff structure is still drawing some mixed reviews but one thing we should be grateful for this year is that it yields a postseason first-round matchup like the Flyers vs. the Rangers. It's one of the NHL's better rivalries and what better way to showcase it than in the postseason.
But forget the history of these two teams, consider where they are at now. They each followed pretty similar paths this season with awful starts and very strong finishes to claim the guaranteed spots out of the Metropolitan Division. They both landed on our list of "teams nobody wants to see in the playoffs" and unfortunately for each, they are seeing the other.
The underlying importance in the playoff race wasn't whether they would get in -- in the closing weeks both looked pretty certain to close on their spots -- but which team would get the home-ice advantage. In their four meetings this season, they split, each game going to the home team. Though the Rangers were actually better on the road this season than at home, the Flyers weren't. Getting home-ice advantage meant a lot to Philly. It went to New York.
In a series that projects to be as tight as this one does, that could be a deciding factor. It's a series with a lot of potential to go deep and that's when home ice starts to have a bigger and bigger impact on a series.
That said, it certainly won't be the deciding factor. Just by virtue of their matchups these two are going to have a bit of a knock-em-down, drag-em-out series on their hands. Add in the venom from a rivalry and it should make for some compelling drama.
It's not difficult to see either team winning this series but obviously only one team will earn the right to take on the winner of the Blue Jackets and Penguins.
NYR Offense vs. PHI Defense
One of the things that makes this series so intriguing is that you have a mediocre offense vs. a mediocre defense and a good offense vs. a good defense in the two respective matchups. This is the mediocre section.
Even with new coach Alain Vigneault coming in before the season and opening things up a bit for the Rangers, they didn't set the world on fire in the scoring department. Even with their well-paid cast of characters the Rangers only checked in at 18th in the league with 2.61, goals per game, a very small step back from last season's pace, believe it or not. The question with this Rangers team all season long, though, was how long could it last? It was bound to turn in their favor eventually right?
Generating chances hasn't been a problem for the Rangers, they are routinely winning the scoring chance battle. The problem has been finishing. Though they have such players as Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, surprising leading scorer (that was with them all season) Mats Zuccarello, etc., etc., scoring has been an issue. They were 27th in the league with a shooting percentage of just 6.1. As a comparison Tampa Bay was 15th this season 7.7 percent, a league mean. So it's not as if the Rangers have been bad on offense, they just have been able to turn it into a lot of goals. Eventually that shooting percentage is bound to turn, the question is if that will happen in the playoffs.
The Flyers, meanwhile, always seem to have their Achilles' heel on defense. Every year it seems like the same thing; they add a player or two hoping he's going to be the difference and usually there isn't much improvement to be seen. This season those adds were Mark Streit and at the trade deadline Andrew MacDonald to go with the corps that includes the steady veteran Kimmo Timonen and a steady Braydon Coburn as well as Luke Schenn. As a unit the Flyers finished 23rd in the league with 2.90 goals against per game even slightly worse than their ranking of 19th in shots against (that should tell you it's not ALL on the defensemen).
PHI Offense vs. NYR Defense
And here we have the strength on strength which pretty much equals out to another even battle.
When the Flyers got off to that atrocious 1-7 start to the season (remember, the Rangers started just as slowly) it was because they weren't getting anything from their offense. Claude Giroux was so slow out of the gate that he missed the cut for the Canadian Olympic team. Since that time he has been on fire and the Flyers offense followed suit. They have scoring depth to challenge any team in the league, literally. They were the only squad in the NHL with seven -- Seven!! -- 20-plus goal scorers on the roster, led by Wayne Simmonds' 29. They go three lines deep, almost equally deep. It was good enough to give them the eighth-ranked offense with 2.84 goals per game even with the atrocious start bringing down the numbers. They aren't an overwhelming possession team -- not good, not bad -- but the Flyers do create well on the rush and they'll get their goals.
Though John Tortorella is gone in favor of Vigneault, the Rangers still have their bread and butter on defense. Certainly they are aided by one of the league's best goaltenders behind them but with Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi leading the way, they have a strong group. It's been a big boon getting Marc Staal back and healthy this season, playing more than 20 minutes a night. McDonagh is the only one on the back that gives them much of an offensive threat with his 14 goals and 29 assists but they are defensemen for a reason and it's tough to gripe about a group that was fourth in the NHL with 2.32 goals against per game.
It has to be admitted that Mason has been a relative surprise this season in Philadelphia, even though the expectations weren't very high to begin with. He took the starter's role in the beginning of the season and played well enough with a .917 save percentage in 61 games. He had a rough middle of the season when you thought the regression might be on but he finished with a save percentage of .921 over March and April. He has at least given the Flyers the best goaltending they've had in a long time going into the playoffs, even if it's hard to be sold on Mason completely. It is a concern that he's a bit dinged up going into the playoffs and if the Flyers have to turn to Emery, who hasn't been great in his backup role.
Improved play or not, Mason is still not Lundqvist. He had a very slow start to the season just like his team. Lundqvist recently admitted that he was a little distracted by his contract negotiations and that theory checks out when you consider how well Lundqvist played in the latter half of the season. In three of his final five starts he only gave up one goal, a sign that he's on top of his game coming into the playoffs. He didn't carry a massive workload with 63 games this season thanks to Cam Talbot's stellar work behind him, which should leave Lundqvist fresher for the playoffs when he has been even better the last two trips. With Lundqvist in net, the Rangers always have a chance.
While the offensive numbers didn't go up over this season with Vigneault instead of Tortorella, the power play numbers did. An annual problem before, the Rangers power play at least stepped into the average range in the league, converting on 18.2 percent of opportunities. This is an area where Martin St. Louis helps them greatly, especially with his old pal Richards. It's not a world-beating group but it's much better than what they've had. Their PK is very strong, as you'd expect with their defensemen and goalie. Ryan Callahan isn't there to recklessly block every shot he sees but still the Rangers finished third in the league this season.
As a group, though, the Flyers do have a bit of an edge in special teams. They had better because at even strength they were outscored this season. On the power play it's a different matter. Giroux (37 points), Wayne Simmonds (15 goals) and Jakub Voracek (23 points) really flourish on the man advantage as does Timonen on the blue line and it's partly why they brought in Mark Streit. Vincent Lecavalier has also done his best work on the man advantage (you know it's a good group when Lecavalier is more like an afterthought). What probably comes as a surprise, though, is how strong the Flyers PK is. With an 84.8 percent kill rate, they finished seventh in the league, well above their regular defensive showing. That's in large thanks to the outstanding PK duo of Sean Couturier and Matt Read, both of whom are dangerous offensive threats on the PK as well.
|(2) New York Rangers vs.|
(3) Philadelphia Flyers
|Thu Apr 17||7 ET||New York||CNBC, TSN|
|Sun Apr 20||Noon ET||New York||NBC, TSN|
|Tue Apr 22||8 ET||Philadelphia||CNBC, TSN|
|Fri Apr 25||7 ET||Philadelphia||CNBC, TSN|
|*Sun Apr 27||Noon ET||New York||NBC, TSN|
|*Tue Apr 29||TBD||Philadelphia||TBD, TSN|
|*Wed Apr 30||TBD||New York||TBD, TSN|
|* if necessary|