Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Rangers, Flyers renew postseason hatred

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

It's been 17 years since the Rangers and Flyers have played in the playoffs, but that will all change come Thursday.

There's a good chance you might show up for the fight, and see a playoff series break out.

There's no love lost between the Rangers and Flyers, despite the fact that they haven't played each other in the postseason since 1997. When the NHL changed the postseason format this season to promote rivalries, this is the kind of matchup it had in mind. But the Flyers haven't won at Madison Square Garden since 2011, and the Rangers set a franchise record with 25 road wins this season.

Conventional wisdom will tell you that favors the Rangers greatly, but you can throw out most of that once the playoffs start.

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The blue line battle

The Rangers faltered in last year's playoffs thanks to their lack of defensive depth outside of shutdown pair Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. But with that duo playing even better, a healthy Marc Staal, and a quietly strong season from Anton Stralman the Rangers are in a good place defensively. Acquiring Kevin Klein and Raphael Diaz were also under-the-radar moves that bolstered Alain Vigneault's blue line.

On the flipside, defense is not a strong suit for the Flyers. They've seen gains from Braydon Coburn this season, and the pairing of Mark Streit and Nicklas Grossmann is playing well down the stretch, but they're certainly slower and older across the board than they'd prefer. Fortunately for Philadelphia, they make it up with their offense.

Deep up front

The Flyers are a deep, dynamic group up front. Heck, Vincent Lecavalier is their "fourth line center" right now. Philadelphia can beat teams with a number of different players, as the Flyers had seven 20-plus goal-scorers. Claude Giroux led that group, and is still one of the deadliest players in the league and a potential Hart Trophy finalist despite his slow start this season. Beyond their top with Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell, Craig Berube has Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read and Brayden Schenn to call upon for goal scoring.

The Rangers have new-found scoring depth this season as well, although it's not quite as potent as Philly's attack. Rick Nash is still a top power forward in the league, but he's now joined by Martin St. Louis. Losing Chris Kreider, who doesn't appear he'll be ready to go in Round 1, is pretty big, but New York rolls three lines that possess the puck well, including an effective third unit of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, and Benoit Pouliot.

The Rangers are hitting their stride, and that mainly coincides with adapting to new head coach Alain Vigneault's system, which predicates pushing the pace and creating more offense. After starting 18-18-2, the Rangers are 27-13-4. Nothing to scoff at.

Rangers clearly win the goalie battle

Of all the positional battles in the first round matchups, this may be the biggest discrepancy across the board.

After going through what he called the toughest stretch of his entire career, Henrik Lundqvist has against cemented his status as one of hockey's top netminders. Before Jan. 8, Lundqvist was 12-16-3 with a 5v5 save percentage of .914 and goals against of 2.53. But since Jan. 8, Lundqvist is 21-8-2, with a .932 save percentage, and a 1.62 goals against.

Steve Mason has been better than expected for the Flyers this season, with a strong .926 5v5 save percentage on the year. He still has a lot to prove, but he's certainly made strides since coming over from Columbus at last year's trade deadline.

That said, Mason certainly isn't of Lundqvist's caliber, and there's a chance he won't even play in the series. Ray Emery will start Game 1 for Philadelphia after Mason was injured in the final weekend of the season. Mason hasn't been ruled out for Game 2, but his status is up in the air.

Luckily for Philly the drop off from Mason to Emery isn't too large, but with Lundqvist in the other cage, they need to hope goaltending isn't the deciding factor in this series no matter who's in their crease.

Penalty kill could decide series

Philadelphia has been a team that's lived and died with their special teams. When their power play runs cold, they lose games. When their power play gets hot, they win games. They have a ton of talent on their PP units, as their scoring depth would indicate, and they finished the season 8th in the league on the PP, converting at 19.7 percent.

The Flyers quietly have one of the best penalty killing units in the league -- and that's pretty necessary, because they sit in the penalty box more than any other team in the NHL.

The Rangers are still the John Tortorella-Mike Sullivan bunch on their PP. They spent a lot of this season a top 10 unit in the league, but have since regressed to around an 18 percent conversion rate. On the penalty kill, even without Ryan Callahan, the Rangers sport one of the best PK's in the league -- third in terms of success rate.

Special teams will have an impact on this series, and with strong units on both clubs, whoever performs best in odd-man situations might come out shining.

The schedule

Game Date Time (ET) Eastern Conference First Round National TV
1 Thu, Apr 17 7 p.m. Philadelphia at NY Rangers CNBC, TSN
2 Sun, Apr 20 Noon Philadelphia at NY Rangers NBC, TSN
3 Tue, Apr 22 8 p.m. NY Rangers at Philadelphia CNBC, TSN
4 Fri, Apr 25 7 p.m. NY Rangers at Philadelphia CNBC, TSN
5* Sun, Apr 27 Noon Philadelphia at NY Rangers NBC, TSN
6* Tue, Apr 29 TBD NY Rangers at Philadelphia TSN
7* Wed, Apr 30 TBD Philadelphia at NY Rangers TSN

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