Here are my first-round position-by-position matchups:
Let’s face it. Up front, the Flyers are going to be able to thump the Rangers, who don’t possess the physical element the Flyers, or most teams, have. The Rangers rely on speed and pressure.
And, if the Rangers’ top guys don’t play better than they did most of the season, the Flyers are more skilled up front too. That could change if Rick Nash is much, much better than he was in the playoffs last season, and if Martin St. Louis is much, much better than he was since coming over at the trade deadline for Ryan Callahan, who will be missed in a series like this, as will injured Chris Kreider. Depth-wise, the Rangers’ third line (Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot) has been its best and most competitive all season long, and their fourth line has been fabulously effective since about December.
Claude Giroux is arguably the best forward in the series and the Flyers led the NHL with seven 20-goal scorers. Vinny Lecavalier heated up late and Jacub Voracek is dangerous. The Flyers will jam and bump Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers’ D. Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell play a physical game with skill – though they haven’t had a lot of success against the Rangers and indeed get distracted. And the Flyers, as always, employ some real clowns, such as Zac Rinaldo, coming off a suspension. Though he might injure somebody, the Rangers are going to mostly be happy when he’s on the ice.
Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen are probably Philadelhia’s top two defensemen, and you wouldn’t trade any of the Rangers’ top three for either of them. Obviously, Ryan McDonagh is the best D-man on either team, but he’s coming back from a shoulder injury, and while he says he’s 100 percent, that remains to be seen. Philly is sure to target him even more than usual.
But McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are going to see major minutes in this series, again, as usual. John Moore probably stays in and Raphael Diaz likely goes out with McDonagh’s return. Anton Stralman had a solid year mostly with Staal, as did Kevin Klein, mostly with Moore, after being acquired for Michael Del Zotto. Andrew MacDonald, acquired from the Islanders, has fortified Philadelphia’s defense, and ex-Isles captain Mark Streit is a power-play weapon (he scored 20 goals). But overall, it’s no contest.
Philadelphia’s bugaboo since, oh, 1975, has been right at this position. Steve Mason has been better than most of the guys the Flyers have brought in over the years – even if they had Sergei Bobrovsky, who went on to win a Vezina Trophy for Columbus. But now he’s out with a probable concussion. The Flyers hope he will play at some point. If not, it falls to Ray Emery, who won a Cup as a backup last year in Chicago and can be streaky either way.
No matter who they have in goal, though, the Rangers were going to have a big advantage here. For years, Henrik Lundqvist has frustrated the Flyers (and other teams, too). The Rangers’ best player had his worst season, but his second half was pretty darn good if not excellent. He’s ready to roll.
Both teams are statistically good 5-on-4 and 4-on-5. Philly ranked eighth in the NHL in power play (19.7) and seventh on the penalty kill (84.8), scoring eight short-handed goals.
The Rangers were 15th on the power play (18.2) but that really dipped from mid-January on. They failed to score a power-play goal in 21 of their final 30 games. And if there’s a way to deter the Flyers’ shenanigans, it would be to score on the power play. To not score would give the Flyers a green light.
The Rangers’ penalty kill was far more effective down the stretch, finishing third in the NHL at 85.3 percent with 10 short-handed goals.
Alain Vigneault has a ton of playoff experience, including a trip to the Stanley Cup final, where his Canucks lost to Boston in seven games in 2011. However, since going up 3-2 in that series, Vigneault’s playoff record is 1-10.
Still, he has had a terrific first season in New York, rebounding from a 3-6 start to finish second, while he instilled a speed-kills system. It’ll be worth watching how that works in the rugged East.
Craig Berube, a long-time Flyers enforcer, took over for fired Peter Laviolette three games into the season and after an 0-7 start, finished third.
PREDICTION: Rangers in 6.
Photo by Getty Images.