One of the NHL’s biggest rivalries will be renewed on Thursday night: Metropolitan Division opponents, the New York Rangers (45-31-6) and Philadelphia Flyers (42-30-10) take to the ice in the quarter-finals of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, in one of the most anticipated series’ of the first round.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season, and the eighth time in the past nine years. Their club underwent some management during the summer of 2013 after being eliminated in the second round of the 2013 Playoffs, courtesy of the Boston Bruins. Alan Vingenault was brought in as the club’s new head coah, after John Tortorella was canned in early summer.
The Rangers opened the season terribly, thanks to an extended road-trip due to renovations at their home rink, Madison Square Garden. The club rebounded, however, and have been consistent ever since, clinching the second seed in the Metropolitan Division’s inaugural season. Captain Ryan Callahan was traded at the Trade Deadline to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and future hall-of-famer Martin St. Louis joined the Rangers in return.
The Rangers have built their team from the goal-line out, and no player is more important than the King, Henrik Lundqvist. Rookie Cam Talbot has surprised many in his first season, after Martin Biron retired mid-way through the year.
In front of the King stands one of the NHL’s deepest defensive cores, with the first pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi leading the way. Girardi’s impact on the Rangers is one not measurable by statistics sheets, but the 29-year old was in the top 10 for blocked shots among defensemen this season, with 174. McDonagh set career-highs in goals (14) and points (43) in his fourth season with the Rangers, but suffered an injury on April 1st. However, he states he is “100% recovered”, and will be in the lineup for Game One. With names like Justin Falk and Marc Stall behind McDonagh and Girardi, the Rangers’ defense is one that will be tough to get by.
The Rangers’ offense was led by Mats Zuccarello, with 59 points on the season. The Rangers’ top guns of Rick Nash, Brad Richards, and Carl Hagelin will have to improve on mediocre regular seasons, however, and Martin St. Louis will have to find his groove with the blue-shirts after only one goal since the trade. Tough guys in Derick Brassard and Daniel Carcillo will have the physical presence up-front, while players such as J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan, and Chris Krieder look to provide a spark of youthful energy among the forwards.
The Flyers are back in the post-season after a fourth-place finish in the former Atlantic Division last season saw them miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Craig Berube is also a first-year coach with the club, who made depth moves in the off-season to acquire Ray Emery, as well as two former captains: defenseman Mark Streit, and former Tampa Bay Lightning legend Vincent Lecavalier.
Like the Rangers, the Flyers also started sluggishly, but as soon as their offense took off, the playoffs seemed like a sure thing. Their consistent play was led by Steve Mason in goal, who tied career-highs with 61 games played and 33 wins, both set in 2008. Mason will not be in New York with the club for Game One of the series after suffering an injury in the regular-season finale, and he is doubtful for Game Two on Saturday as well.
On defense, the Flyers have had big years from Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn, with 25-year old Erik Gustafsson struggling after an injury-filled season that saw him appear in just 31 games. Acquiring Andrew MacDonald at the Trade Deadline has improved the balance and overall play of the defense core, with MacDonald putting up three assists in 19 games with Philly. The Flyers are led by three veteran defensemen: Mark Streit, and 39-year olds Hal Gill, and Kimmo Timonen.
The Flyers’ offense is one of the most underrated league-wide, led by team captain Claude Giroux. Giroux was plagued by a slow start to the season, but still tied a career-high in goals, with 28. Giroux had 7 points in his last four regular-season games. Philadelphia has also seen production from Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell, as well as breakout seasons from young guns Michael Raffl, Sean Couturier, and Brayden Schenn. The Flyers rely on Steve Downie for the physical presence, while Vincent Lecavalier provides veteran goal-scoring support.
These two teams have met 10 times in the post-season, with the Flyers winning 6, including the last three. It has been 17 years since these two teams last played each other in the post-season.
Who Will Win?
I believe that the Flyers offense has such an edge over that of the Rangers, that King Henrik will have to play incredibly for Philadelphia not to move on. The Flyers have the edge in playoff experience, and unless Rick Nash and the Rangers’ offense put up some much-needed scoring, Ray Emery/Steve Mason will be up to the task, and the Flyers will take it. It won’t be a quick series, however: I think this one will see Game Six, at least.
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