FLYERS (3) vs. RANGERS (2)
2012 seems like forever ago. Way back, before the lockout, before the exodus of Bryz, before Chris Pronger officially retired, the Flyers were cruising. Our emotions were flying high, and memories of Richards and Carter were pushed into the abyss.
They were up against the Devils in the second round. Flyer fans remember that series. The orange-and-black had just come off a stupendous first round smashing of the hated Pittsburgh Penguins. And what a series that was. First, there was the 8, 8 and 10 spots put up back and forth, courtesy of our old pals Bryz, Bob, Fleury and Vokoun. Crosby acted like a small child whose cookies and candy got taken away by disapproving parents, and Sean Couturier stole Evgeni Malkin’s lunch money. If you recall, in the deciding game 6, Claude Giroux had the best shift in recent Flyers history: he won the face off, absolutely eviscerated Sidney Crosby, then skated right down and blasting one stick-side past Marc-Andre Fleury.
If you forget, please remind yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tit_fbYnmLc
This was the high water mark of the captaincy of the Ginger Jesus. Peter Laviolette famously remarked that his young captain was the “best player in the world.” The Flyers were riding high after knocking out one of the Cup Favorites.
Then they played the New Jersey Devils.
It didn’t matter that the Flyers had players who had Stanley Cup Experience from 2010, and it certainly didn’t matter that the Flyers had knocked the Devils out with no problem in the previous playoffs. This time around, the Devils harassed them in the neutral zone, got the puck in deep on their forecheck, and made the Flyers fight hard for every inch. They forced turnovers, frustrated Claude Giroux, and highlighted the inadequacies of the Flyers blueliners and goaltending. By the time their skilled forwards got the puck, they had to dump it in and make a change, where the Devils simply skated it right out and pushed it back to the Flyers end. The Devils easily dispatched the Flyers on the way to the Cup Finals.
The Flyers strength, then and now, is hassling teams who have a high skill level and a shaky mentality. The Penguins are the epitome of this; if you put Malkin, Crosby, Neal, Kunitz, Letang et al on ice, all healthy, vs. the Flyers using international rules, they would wipe the floor with them. But when you pack them in close, let Hartnell and Simmonds push the Pens around down low, and let G and Voracek play a physical forecheck, the Flyers can defeat the Penguins. They get thrown off their game, and they let the Flyers in their head. Crosby stops being interested in scoring and becomes more interested in going tit-for-tat with players like Dan Carcillo (then) and Zac Rinaldo (now). Against a skilled, finesse team, Philadelphia can have their way.
Where the Flyers begin to have problems is against disciplined teams that play layered defense and don’t take stupid penalties. The Bruins are one of these teams. This would have been the worst matchup for the Flyers, had they fallen to the 8th seed. But the matchup against the New York Rangers isn’t much better. They are a defensive oriented squad who can pack it in on defense and make the Flyers play a slower, bogged down game.
As with any playoff matchup, goaltending is the first area of concern, and Henrik Lundquist automatically makes it an advantage for the Rangers. Sweden’s second favorite athlete (after the great Zlatan Ibrahimovic) matches up favorably with every goaltender in hockey this side of an on-a-roll Jonathan Quick. He’s had a great year, collecting a silver medal in the Olympics, not to mention a 33-24-5 record, a 2.36 GAA and a .920 save percentage. He’s posted better stats against the Flyers on average than the rest of the league, going 2-1-0/2.03/.940, and has played lights out in the month of April, with a 1.57 GAA and a .949 save percentage. In his career, King Henrik is 27-13-3 all time vs. the Flyers.
As I mentioned before, the Flyers struggle against defensive-oriented teams, so this would be tough sledding either way: outside of last year (where they missed the playoffs in a strike shortened year), they were eliminated the previous two years by the Devils and Bruins, two teams who are notoriously disciplined on D. But this year, round one will pose a special challenge, as the rival New York Rangers have always given the Flyers trouble. Although the season series is tied 2-2, they Flyers have been historically awful over the past few years at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers have defeated the Flyers 8 straight times since March of 2011 in Manhattan. If you want to include the Wells Fargo Center, the Rangers are 13-4 against the Flyguys over that span. The killer blow to the Flyers would be the loss of starting netminder Steve Mason, whose solid play this year has help lift the Flyers from their horrendous start to the 3 seed in the Metropolitan Division. He is questionable for the start of the series on Thursday.
The Rangers boast a talented (if underachieving) crop of forwards in Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. The real key to their success is the play of their defenseman Rayn McDonagh, who has absolutely lit it up down the stretch and been the lynchpin of their run over the back end of the season. The stud 21-year-old, who has scored 43 points after barely contributing at all the first half of the season, had an injury occur two weeks ago and will not be at full strength.
So it seems it will fall do Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and the rest of the NYR blueliners to attempt to stop the bustling Flyers offense. A balanced attack, led by Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read and Scott Hartnell can give any team fits; a balance of physical play and speed mixed with skill give the Flyers a chance to win in any series. Each of the aforementioned players is a 15 goal scorer.
But to win this series against New York, the Flyers will have to steal one on the road. And I’m excited to see whether they can do it.
Start growing your beards.
My heart says the Flyers win in seven.
My head, on the other hand….
RANGERS over FLYERS in 7