Flyers vs Rangers Playoff Preview

April 16th, 2014 by Kyle Lutz | Filed under Flyers, General, Hockey.

As we exit the NHL Regular Season and enter into the playoffs, the Flyers have a lot of question marks going forward. On the flip side, they also have some things in their favor as well heading into Thursday night’s bout with New York at MSG. Let’s look at the series as a whole.

(AP)

Series Schedule- Date/Location/Time/Channel (all times EST)

04/17- @ New York- 07:00 PM- CSN
04/20- @ New York- 12:00 PM- NBC
04/22- @ Philly- 08:00 PM- CSN
04/25- @ Philly- 07:00 PM- CSN
04/27- @ New York- 12:00 PM- NBC (if necessary)
04/29- @ Philly- TBA- CSN (if necessary)
04/30- @ New York- TBA- CSN (if necessary)

Despite posting a winning record (23-22-3), last season (2012-13) was one to forget for Philadelphia in the lockout-shortened season; as they missed the postseason for just the second time in the span of the past 16 seasons. Interim head coach Craig Berube has to feel good about that, as well as his club’s overall improvement(s) within this season as well; as they began the season at just 0-3, and were just 3-8 one month in. Since November 1st, Philly’s gone 39-22-10.

Alain Vigneault is in his first year as Rangers’ head coach, having previously coached two Canadian NHL teams in Vancouver (2006-2013) and Montreal (1997-2001). Vigneault has had success as coach, not just in the regular season either, as he took the 2011 Canucks three years ago to the Finals; before eventually bowing to Boston.

Surprisingly, this is only the second time since they won the Cup with Mark Messier in 1994 that New York has won 45 or more games in a season. The only other occurrence came two years ago, under then-head coach John Tortorella, when they won 51 games on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

In not good news for the Flyers: New York got hot at just the right time to conclude the season, going 9-2-2 in their final 13 games. Hopefully this isn’t a hot streak that continues into the playoffs, something that happens all too often for teams each year that win the Cup; they gel and get hot at just the right time, given they’re in the hunt. Current-Flyers’ center/winger Vinny Lecavalier eluded to that as well, in reference to his 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning team that beat the Flyers on their way to winning the Cup that season; although, then again, New York hasn’t won a round yet this postseason, let alone a Cup. To give you an idea of my point/example, Tampa Bay that season were undefeated in 16 out of their last 20 regular season games- including four of their last six. Hopefully the Blueshirts discontinue their hot streak come Thursday.

“You get down to that stretch there the last month, and we knew we had to string some wins together to get into the playoffs. I think when our best was needed, we gave it, and we’ve been giving it for a while now,” alternate-captain Marc Staal said.

Breaking down the series’ schedule listed above, it’s strange that the NHL has decided to give playoff teams such long breaks in between games. In my opinion, there should be a day off for travel time/rest, but nothing more. Waiting around for a couple of days, even though the thought of it to some people may sound good; for reasons pertaining to rest, can only make teams cold. Game action is needed as often as possible, especially when it all counts come playoff time.

Five out of the seven games; and all of the night games; are going to be shown locally on Comcast SportsNet, while NBC will carry the other two; and at least Game 2. For the Flyers, an extra day’s rest won’t hurt in this case, for Mason and Grossmann especially; as well as 39-year old veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen.

5 Question Marks for the Flyers heading into the series

01. Steve Mason’s health

Mason, in his last game/period of the season four days ago at rival Pittsburgh, was ultimately taken out of the game by head coach Craig Berube and replaced by backup Ray Emery. Foolishly, Pens’ forward Jayson Megna pushed Flyers’ blue liner Andrew MacDonald into Mason. Philadelphia’s netminder laid there unresponsive in his net, in clear-cut pain from the impact. Despite staying in the game for the remaining 3:33 of the second period, Mason was replaced by Emery; the latter of which played the remainder of the game and earned the win in overtime.

In what seems to be a common practice for NHL teams this season, the Flyers’ injury report had listed him day-to-day due to an upper-body injury; possibly a concussion. Mason made it to be known that he’s feeling a bit better day by day, and it seems as if the team expects him to be ready and starting for Game 1 Thursday night.

On a positive note, Mase returned to the ice on Tuesday, albeit not for the entire team practice.

“I feel better each day and we’ll see how I feel tomorrow,” Mason said.

Berube gave his impression of Mason’s outing on Tuesday.

“I thought he looked decent,” Flyers coach Craig Berube said. “He came out there for a little bit in practice and got some work in, and I thought he looked pretty good.”

The goalie looked fantastic, especially pre-collision, in that final game of his at Pittsburgh; stopping 21 out of 22 total shots. He made great save after great save, sprawling every which way in order to secure the posts, prevent rebound goals, and keep his team in it until the end; in which he did. Emery ended up earning the victory, but Mason definitely put the team in a position to succeed nonetheless.

***UPDATE***

Steve Mason is out; listed as day-to-day, will NOT start Game 1 for Philadelphia. Mason didn’t even travel with the team, Emery gets the nod instead; with Cal Heeter backing him up on the bench. A huge loss for the Flyers, even if it’s for just one game. It’s unclear as to whether or not he’ll play in Game 2 and beyond that, considering his health. The good thing is, the travel isn’t far, if he were ready to re-join the team and start.

This year, he went 33-18-7 in his first full season with the team after being acquired from Columbus just over a year today.

Arguably, without Giroux, Mason was the team’s MVP this season. His stats aren’t eye-popping, mostly due to the team’s lack of a successful team defense, but he does the little things on the ice in net in order to give the team a chance night-in and night-out. Mason’s 33 wins this season ranked seventh among all qualifying NHL goaltenders, while he also ranked within the top 10 as well (at number nine) in minutes (3486).

Without him, even with Giroux, the team is more than half of what they are with him in game action.

02. The Flyers’ recent poor play vs. New York

Although these two teams split this past season’s series at two games apiece, Philadelphia was 0-2 at Madison Square Garden; winning both of their games vs. New York this year at the Wells Fargo Center. In those two respective losses in Manhattan, they scored only one goal in each game and lost 4-1 both times; all while outscoring their opposition 6-3 in the two home games. 

Philadelphia is an unbelievable 0-7 in the past three years on the road vs. the Rangers, and they’ve lost eight straight regular-season games there dating back to the 2010-11 season. The Fly Guys’ last win at MSG vs. the Rangers came on February 20th, 2011. Since then, Peter Laviolette was fired and replaced, at least temporarily, by former assistant Craig Berube, Claude Giroux became team captain, and New York shipped team captain Ryan Callahan to Tampa for (Vinny Lecavalier’s former-teammate) sniper Martin St. Louis. So yes, it’s been awhile.

New York’s gone 11-5-3 since the Callahan/St. Louis trade back on March 5th.

03. Craig Berube’s lack of playoff experience as head coach

This is Berube’s first year as NHL and team head coach. Thus, despite experience and success previously as an NHL assistant head coach, because of that fact; he has no experience in the playoffs yet until now. Experience is a major factor for any coach, and although Berube’s been in the organization as a coach for seven consecutive seasons, he’s exploring new territory.

Personally, I don’t think this will be a problem considering how intelligent, experienced, and honest Berube is; among other things. It’s still a factor to consider though regardless.

04. Vinny Lecavalier’s inconsistency

Prior to this season commencing, I thought Lecavalier was a strong signing by Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren based on his resume, skill sets, and experience. But he’s had his ups and downs, rough patches, and bad moments this season; now that it’s all said and done. Albeit, he’s had to switch from his natural position at center to wing, but that’s mostly due to his lack of strong play in the earlier parts of this season under Berube. He barely hit the 20-goal mark, as he totaled just 37 points in 69 games this year; and he was a -16 to boot. Yes, with age he’s slowed down with Tampa/Philly the past few years, but it’s still inexcusable for his play this season. If he wants to help the team win, he’ll have to give a full, 60-minute (or longer) performance each night; and no excuses either as to where he’s slotted in the lineup position wise either. Lecavalier doesn’t have an attitude problem, it’s more so shear frustration and uncharted territory, but nonetheless he needs to pick it up.

Lecavalier didn’t register a point in any of the final three games of the season. His minutes are reflective of his output too it seems. When he scored two goals vs. Boston on March 30th his ice time was 17:02, yet the next game — in a zero-point performance — he went back to playing 13 minutes/game again.

05. Penalties/Turnovers/Defense

Year-in and year-out it seems as if the Flyers outright dominate the penalty minutes stat line. Well, they did it again this year, leading the league in PIM with 1180. They also ranked among the top three in major penalties (tied for second with Boston, and slightly behind Toronto, with 46), fights per game (0.55; ranked second), average time between fights (110:55; ranked third), and game misconducts (six).

Three players had 100 or more penalty minutes, with enforcer Zac Rinaldo leading the way with 153, while fellow enforcer Jay Rosehill (in only 34 games) came close with 90. Fellow forwards Wayne Simmonds (106) and Scott Hartnell (103) also had 100 or more penalty minutes this past season.

When it comes to turnovers and/or boneheaded mistakes, the team is a pro, as a whole, in that department as well. Off the bat, “Chief (Berube)” didn’t care for forward Steve Downie’s poor defensive play as of late; especially in a recent game last week at Tampa. To make an example out of him, as well as prevent further damage, Berube has (intelligently) decided to make Downie a healthy scratch as of recent; although Downie’s suffered upper-body injury symptoms as of late too.

Furthermore, Philadelphia’s defense; statistically speaking; is a turnover machine. Mark Streit’s turnover +/- this season was a -25, while Luke Schenn and Braydon Coburn were a combined -37. Now I realize metrics like these are tough to compare to how good/bad a player is, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Making little plays in your own zone to prevent big plays/goals from occurring/being scored on your behalf are going to be a huge factor for Philadelphia.

New York is a solid defensive team, both on paper and statistically. They ranked third in highest save percentage (.921), third in opposing teams’ shooting percentage; ranked lowest to highest (7.88%), and (tied for) third as well in shutouts with 8.

Offensively, they’re pretty good as well; despite the lack of depth in comparison to Philly’s. New York ranked second in the league this year in shots on goal with 2719.

5 Positives for Philly heading into the series

01. Rick Nash’s playoff inefficiency 

Nash, as good of a scorer as he is, has been really bad in his career in the playoffs. He only has two goals (and eight points) in 16 career playoff games with Columbus and New York. To give you an idea of how solid he’s been in his career in the regular season, all while comparing that figure to how poor he’s performed in the postseason, here we go:

Nash, in his career; per 82-games (not including this season), averages 35.4  goals/game (310 career goals through 2013, in 718 games played). As for his goals/game average, per 82 games as well, in the playoffs? He averages just a measly 10 goals. That’s an extremely-positive sign for the Flyers heading into this series, considering how much of a super-star he is in the regular season.

If the Flyers want great success, and not a first-round exit vs. New York, they’ll need to try to continue Nash’s poor playoff play. Otherwise, he’ll wreak havoc on our defense.

02. Claude Giroux’s recent play

Don’t misconstrue this: Giroux’s been solid all year long for the most part, especially since mid-December. Since then, he’s led the league in scoring. But he seemed to tail off a bit recently.

Considering the Flyers’ scoring depth, it wouldn’t be a downright problem if G didn’t light the lamp often vs. the Rangers, as well as considering Giroux’s overall versatility in passing/scoring/winning face-offs/doing the little things right on the ice/mentoring the young players/playing defense. But it would be a plus, of course, if he did. More so, we tend to depend more so on his crisp, cross-ice passes than his goal-scoring.

Regardless, as of late; statistically speaking; Mr. Captain’s been strong. He’s registered at least a point in his last four regular-season outings; two of which were multi-point games, including a three-point performance last Saturday at Pittsburgh. In that game, he broke a 2-2 tie; in what seemed like the game-winner at the time (Pittsburgh ended up scoring, to tie the game again, 38 seconds later); with a 1:15 remaining.

Overall, Claude has seven points (3 goals, 4 assists) in those four games; a very positive sign going forward.

03. Philadelphia’s road power-play

Special teams were a huge factor for both teams this season. Even though New York ranked third overall this year in penalty killing (85.3%), Philadelphia was very impressive with the man-advantage on the road this season. They ranked first in road power-play efficiency with 25.2%, and eighth overall at 19.3%. To make things even more interesting, the Rangers were a middle-of-the-pack team on the power-play this year; ranked 15th at 18.2%.

(Jason Franson/The Canadian Press/AP)

One of the premier special teams players for Philadelphia all season long has been Wayne Simmonds. Simmer has been lethal on the power-play this season, totaling 15 power-play goals, which ranked him third in the league. Who were the two NHL players that ranked ahead of him in that category? Well I’m glad you asked.

Alex Ovechkin ranked first with 24, while Joe Pavelski ranked slightly ahead of Simmonds at number two with 16. Pretty good company to be in, to say the least, if you ask me.

Over half of his total goals this year came via the PP (15/29; 51.7%), and the more power-play opportunities the team gets, the better; for Wayne’s sake.

Special teams will be crucial, and one of the biggest factors for both teams this series in determining a winner.

04. Health & Size

Despite starting goalie Steve Mason’s recent injury problems (see above), the team is surprisingly (and happily) very healthy at the moment. On top of that, Philadelphia only ranked 19th this season in man-games-lost with 211. Even better, they ranked second-to-last in fewest games injured this season with 39; only four behind Dallas’ 35.

Defenseman Nicklas Grossmann is probable, like Mason is, for Game 1 due to a bruised right ankle. The former hasn’t played in over a week. In that eight-day span, he missed the three final games for the team; and only four all season. I would assume he returns, but if not, veteran Hal Gill will most likely take his place; to which he has done so successfully thus far this season. Steve Downie also seems to still be suffering, to a degree, symptoms from an upper-body injury sustained recently; but he’s not listed as doubtful nor out.

Rangers’ defenseman Ryan McDonagh was listed on the team’s injury report three days ago as probable for Game 1 with a bruised left shoulder, but he assured doubters that he’d play and is “ready to go.” He missed the team’s last five games; the only five games he missed all year; after injuring his shoulder in a game over two weeks ago at Vancouver. Injured left-winger Chris Kreider, who had left-hand surgery on March 28th, is indefinite time-table wise and could potentially miss the entire round. Besides Kreider for New York, and potentially Grossmann/Mason (and possibly Downie; if he’s even penciled in, in the first place) for Philly, everyone else is healthy and nothing’s changed too much as of recent in that department.

For any playoff team in any season, health and team unity (based around that) is crucial. Losing a superstar, or a number-one goalie, can automatically knock out any given amount of teams per year. Philadelphia can ill-afford to lose Giroux or Mason (among others); God forbid.

As for the size comparison, Philly has a pretty bid edge statistically speaking; which is huge, pun not intended. Philadelphia can score with the best of them, as they ranked ninth in the league in goals for this year.

05. Scoring Depth/young talent

Philadelphia was the only team this year to have seven or more 20+ goal scorers (Simmonds; 29, Giroux; 28, Voracek; 23, Read; 22, Hartnell/Brayden Schenn/Lecavalier; 20); one of the strengths for the team this year. On the flip side, the Rangers this past season only had two 20+ goal scorers in Rick Nash (26) and assistant-captain Brad Richards (20).

The latter’s leading point scorer was left-winger Mats Zuccarello (19 goals, 40 assists= 59 points), while Giroux led the Flyers in scoring this year with 86 points (28 goals, 58 assists).

For Philadelphia, Matt Read is an extremely talented, versatile, yet under-the-radar type of player. He can do many things in any of the two offensive/defensive zones. Not only can he play solid defense, but he can score a bit too; unlike linemate Sean Couturier, who’s mostly known (almost solely) for his solid backchecking and defense.

To look into hockey sabermetrics a bit, Read not only was an impressive +23 in the takeaway/giveaway department this past season (turnover plus-minus), but he ranked within the top 30 among all NHL players as well at number 29. Read led the team in the category, surprisingly ahead of Giroux. Second-line center Brayden Schenn ranked second on the team in the aforementioned category, and 54th overall, with a +18.

Speaking in terms of young talent, besides the obvious offensive/defensive young talent we’ve already come to known the past several years, Jason Akeson for Philadelphia made his mark on coach Craig Berube after the former’s lone game this year on Sunday.

“He’s a heads-up player,” Berube said. “He’s got skill and he has composure with the puck. I thought he played a good game.”

Akeson could make the postseason roster. The race for the final spot on offense seems to be between Steve Downie; who was benched as a healthy scratch six out of the last eight games and is still suffering symptoms from a recent upper-body injury; Tye McGinn, and Akeson.

Akeson with the Phantoms this season, in 70 games, totaled 24 goals and 64 points. He now has led the Phantoms in scoring the past two seasons. McGinn ranked third among all Adirondack players this season in scoring with 35 points in 54 games.

Neither Akeson or McGinn have playoff experience in the NHL, but regardless, Akeson made his mark on the coach. This is, knock on wood, a positive sign as well in other ways. With Akeson stepping up (and getting playing time), you would think it signals to Downie — and maybe McGinn as well — to step up his game, or else he’ll be replaced; as he has been before this season. There’s always somebody waiting in the wing; pun not intended.

Stat/Fun Fact of the Day

These two teams, prior to this season, haven’t met in a playoff series since the Eric Lindros-led, conference-championship days (for Philly) of 1997. That year, Philadelphia; as a number-three seed (to New York’s number-six seed); defeated Wayne Gretzky’s Rangers in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Eventually, after defeating their arch nemesis a round prior, Philadelphia got handily defeated by Detroit in a four-game sweep. Within that 18-year span, the Rangers have had nine different head coaches at the helm.

Key Players (per team) 

-New York

01. Henrik Lundqvist– Despite a career 30-39 playoff W-L record, he has a solid 2.28 GAA in that time span. He’ll need to be on his game for sure
02. Rick Nash- 2002 # 1 Overall Pick, six-time All-Star, seven-time 30+ goal scorer
03. Martin St. Louis- Great hands, consistent, had a strong season offensively considering his age (38), 2003/04 Hart Trophy Winner, nine-time All-Star
03. Brad Richards- 
Strong player both on and off the puck, excels in his own zone defensively/backchecking
04. Ryan McDonagh- Is he 100%? (Big question mark), two-time All-Star, top 10 in def. point-shares past three years; led NHL in def. point shares in 2011 (6.7)

-Philadelphia

01. Claude Giroux- Arguably one of the best players in the NHL, led the league in scoring since mid-December, has averaged 90 points/year since 2011
02. Steve Mason- Vastly underrated, solid season despite playing behind a poor defensive team, quick reflexes
03. Wayne Simmonds- One of the league’s best-kept secrets, strong on the man advantage (see above), good all-around player with strong physicality
04. Kimmo Timonen- Veteran blue liner with a ton of intelligence, strong with the puck, can be physical if/when need be, locker-room leader
05. Sean Couturier– One of the best young and up-and-coming forwards, as well as shut-down (defensively-minded) forwards. If he plays defensively like he did vs. Pittsburgh (specifically Evgeni Malkin) in the quarterfinals two years ago, gives the team a great chance vs. NY
06. Andrew MacDonald- has been very solid defensively since his arrival, takes a lot of the pressure off of Timonen with the amount of minutes/game he logs

Keys To A Series Victory

-For New York

01. Take advantage of Philly’s defensive-zone mistakes/turnovers- they happen all too often it seems (bad passes or failed clears)
02. Get Rick Nash going early– build his confidence
03. Improve your power-play

-For Philadelphia

01. Crowd Lundqvist’s vision as best as possible- the fewer shots he can see (in plain sight, or even barely), in any game, the better your chances of scoring and winning are
02. Continue the strong road power-play
03. Take the crowd out of the first two road games as early as possible- Momentum-shifter and advantage without the seventh player out there
04. Be smart defensively/don’t take stupid penalties– Defensively they had trouble clearing the zone a lot the final few games of the year. Don’t make Nash or St. Louis make you pay for defensive-zone mistakes; look down ice. As well as being smart in not retaliating and not taking dumb, inexcusable penalties. For these two reasons, perhaps forward Steve Downie will be a healthy scratch again

Series Prediction- Flyers in 6

I try to be realistic as I can, and considering the Flyers’ depth, health, and Rick Nash’s career playoff woes, I’ve decided to go with Philadelphia. I do think Philadelphia can break their streak of bad play recently vs. New York, and New York has been poor at MSG this year compared to on the road. The latter was 20-17-4 at home this season, while 25-14-2 away from Madison Square Garden. Considering they have home-ice advantage this series, New York better step it up at home or else the Flyers’ road power-play will propel them to success.

A big advantage the Flyers bring along with them to this series I feel is size/determination. New York has a lot of it, but the Flyers not only are physical and willing to scrap, but they have the size, strength, and skill to compete with anyone; especially/mostly offensively. Defensively, Luke Schenn and Nicklas Grossmann are an average 6’3, 230 pounds. Hal Gill, as an insurance defenseman, is another big body at 6’7 and 243 pounds. Based on the latter fact and experience, I feel Gill should start over Schenn; but Schenn, size wise, isn’t no slouch by any stretch either. Philly’s a strong checking team as well, they utilize their size well, aren’t afraid to get physical if need be, and it’s become one of their strengths.

According to SportingCharts.com, Philadelphia ranked sixth in the league this season in hits/game with 26.05. As for New York, within the same category? They ranked 14th at 23.2 a game.

New York is surprisingly bigger on forward than defensively. Their three heaviest players are forwards (center Brian Boyle; 244, left-winger Taylor Pyatt; 230, and Chris Kreider; 226), but like the Flyers, they mix things up nice and well on both sides. Fortunately for the Flyers, New York won’t be able to utilize Kreider’s size and strength, thus they’ll most likely attempt to make up for it in other areas instead.

Overall; between Nash’s career playoff struggles, St. Louis’ inadequate play since coming over from Tampa, Philadelphia’s offensive depth and experience, as well as Steve Mason being a worthy opponent to Lundqvist; I feel Philadelphia can finally win in New York, and take the series as well.

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