NEW YORK, N.Y. – It’s Broadway vs. Broad Street for the first time in 17 years.
It doesn’t matter if these longtime rivals are in the Patrick, Atlantic, or newly formed Metropolitan Division, when the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers clash, it is every bit of a backyard brawl.
The Rangers come into the latest best-of-seven, first-round playoff series with a bit of an edge, having secured home-ice advantage by finishing second in the Metropolitan—two points ahead of the third-place Flyers.
“We’ve been on a playoff push here for quite some time,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said of his club that went 10-3-1 record in 14 games before the season finale, in which many regulars sat out. “We’ve been playing under pressure, we’ve responded real well in the big games. That’s why we were able to get in. Now we’ve got to continue.”
New York will try to make the most of its late-season surge to second place right away in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. It might take a while to figure out how important playing at home is, but these clubs split four games this season in their home rinks, so the Rangers should certainly feel most comfortable if this series goes the distance, and Game 7 is back in Manhattan.
“Game 1 is the most important game we’re going to play,” Vigneault said. “Both teams want to get off on the right foot. If you look at all the comparisons—power play, penalty-killing, five on five, goaltending—there is so little separating us.
“It’s going to come down to good preparation on our part and the players’ part. It’s going to come down to the players going out and executing. I believe we’re going through the right process right now, and I really believe our guys want to win.
This will be the 11th time these rivals meet in the post-season, and Philadelphia has won six of the first 10 meetings—including the last three, most recently a five-game triumph in the 1997 Eastern Conference finals.
The Rangers haven’t come out on top since a 3-2 series win in the 1986 Patrick Division semifinals, eight years before New York broke its 54-year Stanley Cup title drought.
“Playing against Washington all these years in the playoffs was just fun,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “We definitely built a playoff rivalry. When it comes to New York-Philly, the rivalry is always there. It will be special for us and for the fans.”
Despite not winning in two tries this season in Philadelphia, the Rangers were 25-14-2 on the road, and 20-17-4 at home.
“It’s big,” New York defenceman Marc Staal said of home-ice advantage. “It’s something that we were looking at near the end of the season. Especially in the playoffs, your home rink needs to be a place where you’re tough to play against, and we will be that way.
“You’re always excited to play in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. But it’s exciting that that’s the matchup. It’s going to be tough, but we’re looking forward to it.”
The Flyers have won three straight from the Rangers in Philadelphia and dropped eight in a row at the Garden. Philadelphia’s last win in Manhattan was Feb. 20, 2011.
“We are due in Madison Square Garden,” Flyers forward Jakub Voracek said. “It’s a tough building to play in. We are due to win some game there. You hope this is the right timing.”
Game 2 is Sunday in New York before the series shifts to Philadelphia for games on Tuesday and Friday.
Here are five things to look for in the latest installment of this close-quarters rivalry:
MINDING THE NETS: The Rangers have no concerns in goal with Lundqvist, who set club records this season for career wins and shutouts. The Flyers already have issues as No. 1 netminder Steve Mason hasn’t recovered yet from an upper-body injury sustained last weekend in a collision against Pittsburgh, and will miss at least the series opener, coach Craig Berube said Wednesday. So Ray Emery will be the first to face the Rangers on Thursday. Emery was 9-12-2 with a 2.96 goals-against average in 28 games. He is 7-2 with a 1.87 GAA and .936 save percentage in 10 career games against the Rangers, but lost 4-1 to them on Jan. 12. Mason was 2-1 with a 2.01 GAA and .937 save percentage in three starts against New York.
“They have two very good goaltenders. We’re prepared for both,” Vigneault said Wednesday.
COACHING COMPARISON: Vigneault is in his first season with the Rangers, but is no stranger to the post-season following earlier head coaching stints with Montreal and Vancouver. He has reached the playoffs eight times in 12 seasons, advancing to the Stanley Cup finals with Vancouver in 2011. Berube is new to all of this, becoming an NHL head coach for the first time this season when he took over for the fired Peter Laviolette just three games in (0-3). With a club that few thought would reach the playoffs, Berube went 42-27-10 behind the bench the rest of the way and vaulted into the conversation among NHL coach of the year contenders.
SPURRING THE OFFENSE: The Flyers rely on captain Claude Giroux, their leading point-getter with 86, to power the club. Philadelphia was 21-2-1 this season when Giroux netted a goal and 33-15-4 when he recorded at least one point. Rick Nash tied the Rangers record by scoring nine game-winning goals this season. Nash, who had a team-high 26 goals, tied for third in the NHL in winners.
GETTING HEALTHY: Star defenceman Ryan McDonagh is expected to be back in the New York lineup for Game 1 after he missed the final five games of the regular season because of a shoulder injury. Derick Brassard left practice early on Tuesday with a back ailment but was back on the ice Wednesday and should be in the opening lineup. Derek Dorsett is a question mark for Thursday. Outside of Mason, the Flyers have a full complement, including seven who were in all 82 regular-season games. That was the club’s most since the 1974-75 squad had six suit up for the full 80-game campaign.
STIFLING Defence: During their home winning streak against the Philadelphia, the Rangers have outscored the Flyers 31-9. New York has allowed two goals or fewer in each of the last eight home games and 14 of 17 overall versus the Flyers. Lundqvist is 8-0 with a 1.13 GAA, a .960 save percentage and two shutouts in his past eight home meetings with Philadelphia.