The Flyers closed out the regular season Sunday with a 6-5 shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in a game that had no meaning for either squad. Over the weekend the Flyers beat the hated Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh to clinch 3rd place in the Metropolitan division and lock themselves in to face off against long time rival the New York Rangers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sure the Flyers have had issues with the Rangers over the past few seasons but from a fan perspective you can’t ask for much more than to face off in a best of 7 against one of your biggest rivals. The opening round should make for great television and some great memories to be added to the ever heated New York/Philly rivalry.
The last time the Flyers and Rangers went at it in the playoffs was 1997 when the Flyers beat the Rangers 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals. That season the Flyers were led by Eric Lindros and company where they eventually fell to the underdog Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals. This time around the Stanley Cup expectations aren’t quite there but the Flyers have played well enough down the stretch to expect a possible series win this time around in the playoffs but it will be a huge challenge going up against the Rangers.
The Flyers haven’t beaten the Rangers at Madison Square Garden since February of 2011. For whatever reason the Rangers just have the number of the Flyers when playing in the garden which is why it was so important for the Flyers to capture home ice in the first around. The Flyers had an opportunity to do that during the final week of the season but they were beaten by the Lightning last week which eliminated them from that possibility. One can say the Flyers are due for a win at MSG but it’ll certainly be a challenge.
The Rangers are led by all world goalie Henrik Lundqvist who’s coming off another fantastic season which included a Silver Medal during the Sochi Olympics back in February. Left winger Rick Nash led the team in goals with 26 and will be a force to be reckoned with for the Flyers. They also have right winger Mats Zuccarello who led the team not only in points but also assists. Along with these great players the Rangers are led by first year coach Alain Vigneault who came over this season from Vancouver where he led the Canucks to the playoffs year in and year out. From a coaching standpoint the Rangers will clearly have the advantage as Vigneault has the experience coaching in big playoff scenarios.
For the Flyers they are going into the post season with 7 players who have 20+ goals. That stat alone is remarkable and shows just how balanced the offense is for the Flyers. Captain Claude Giroux led the team with 28 goals and also led the team in points with 85 and assists with 57. Giroux played with a chip on his shoulder all season after the Canadian national hockey team snubbed him and left him off the Olympic roster. Giroux came up huge 2 seasons ago when the Flyers beat the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. It was that series that allowed Giroux to really establish himself as a dominant player in the NHL.
The Flyers will enter the series with Steve Mason in goal. Mason who took a hit over the weekend against the Penguins is expected to be ready for game 1. Mason has only been to the post season once before with Columbus so it’ll be interesting to see how he plays in a series with such an intense rivalry. Craig Berube is a first year NHL head coach and has been a great leader for this team. As a player he was a part of that Flyers team that last played the Rangers in the post season in 97 so he’s quite aware of how intense the Philly/NY rivalry is. Berube will be an asset for the Flyers when it comes to just getting this team mentally prepared for the playoff battle with a hated rival.
In my opinion the Flyers will need to win at least one of the first two games in NY in order to have a chance at winning this series. A split in the first two games would be huge because it’ll allow this young Flyers squad to gain some confidence coming back to Philly where they’ve been dominant all season. Lundqvist’s career record against the Flyers in 45 games is 27-13-3 with 4 shutouts. He has a 2.45 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. All these are considered great stats against the Flyers which can be daunting for a young team. Since March 6, 2011 the Rangers have won 13 of 17 meetings and have outscored the Flyers 58-32 over that span.
Clearly the stats show the Rangers have just had the Flyers number since March of 2011. Most, including myself, actually wanted the Flyers to draw the Penguins in the first round. The Flyers just seem to matchup better against the Penguins and it seems the Flyers are just in the Penguins heads. But instead of the Penguins it’s the Rangers in round 1.
Regardless of the outcome of the series it’s good to see playoff hockey back in Philadelphia. The Flyers missed the post-season last year for only the 2nd time since the early 90s. It’s been a pretty remarkable run for Flyer fans when it comes to playoff appearances. The only thing missing from this run is a Stanley Cup. I believe this team is on the right track to winning that cup but I’ll be honest I don’t think this is the year. This team is still too young and the playoffs are loaded with too many teams with far better offensive talent and goaltending. For this club winning the first round against the Rangers would be a huge accomplishment. Do I think that can happen? Maybe, but it’ll be a challenge. I see this series going 6 or 7 games but in the end the home ice advantage for the Rangers and the goaltending of Lundqvist will be too much for a young Flyers squad entering the playoffs for the first time in two seasons.
I could be completely wrong though. For those of you who are yearly followers of the NHL you’ve seen some magical things happen in the playoffs. The NHL playoffs are always the widest open of any post seasons for any major American sport in my opinion. We just saw a 7th seeded LA Kings team get hot 2 seasons ago and ride a hot goaltender all the way to the championship so who’s to say that team can’t be the Flyers this year if Steve Mason gets hot. So sure I just said the Rangers will probably win this series in 6 or 7 games but this is the NHL playoffs. You can’t script or predict anything that’s about to happen over the next 2 months. This is the NHL playoffs folks where the weird and wild happen every night. All I know is we’re all being treated to another great chapter in the book of Philly/NY sports rivalry and that alone should be enough to get any Philly sports fan to tune in and watch. With that said Lets Go Flyers, hopefully see you in round 2.