PHILADELPHIA – Outside, inside, Pennsylvania, New York. It really doesn’t matter where they play—the Rangers own the Flyers.
As a result, they are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Ryan Callahan and Artem Anisimov scored as part of a four-goal first period, and the New York Rangers clinched the No. 1 seed for the first time since 1994 with a 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.
The Rangers are tops in the East for the first time since Mark Messier led them to their last Stanley Cup championship 18 years ago. The Rangers, who lead the overall NHL standings with 109 points, are assured of home-ice advantage until at least the Stanley Cup finals.
The Rangers are on top thanks to a stunning series sweep of the Atlantic Division-rival Flyers. They went 6-0 against Philadelphia for the first time in 40 years.
“I love this, what a season,” said forward Brad Richards, considered the biggest prize in last summer’s free-agent market. “This is a great time of year. Yes, it’s going to be a grind, it always is, but we have a good team here, and we have the right pieces in place. It’s up to us.”
Ryan McDonagh and Brian Boyle also scored to help the Rangers storm to a 4-0 lead. Marian Gaborik added his 41st goal, and Henrik Lundqvist earned his career-best 39th victory.
The Rangers have ridden the All-Star Lundqvist all the way to the top, and he was sensational again in the clincher. It was Rangers defenceman Marc Staal who knocked the puck past him for the first Philadelphia goal. Staal kicked the puck with his left skate under Lundqvist’s right leg in the second to make it 4-1. Jakub Voracek got credit for the goal.
Lundqvist solidified his Vezina Trophy credentials with 37 saves in his milestone victory. In the locker room, he had his right arm wrapped up in ice and was hurting. He said he had trouble keeping a hold of his stick late in the game after being struck by a shot late in the second period.
“There were times where I wanted to say, ‘I’m outta here.’ But I got through it,” he said “We’ll see how it is in a couple of days, see how it feels. Hopefully, I’ll be ready to go, but it was tough.”
First place is rare air for a team that has won only two post-season series since 1998. Owner James Dolan made an atypical visit to the postgame news conference in January and proclaimed the Rangers Stanley Cup contenders.
“I think we’re pretty close to getting that back,” Dolan said of the Stanley Cup.
Opening at home sure helps.
“It’s been a long year for these guys, but they deserve the No. 1 seed,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “Now, in a couple of days, things will change. But I know our guys are excited for that.”
Ilya Bryzgalov was a sparkling 10-2-1 in March and chosen as the NHL’s first star, but he sat out the previous three games because of a chip fracture in his right foot. In his return, he had Flyers fans wishing he missed one more.
McDonagh took Gaborik’s feed from behind the net and scored his seventh goal of the season 6:25 in. Boyle followed with his 10th, and Anisimov and Callahan both scored on the power play for a 4-0 lead that quieted an oddly sparse crowd for Philadelphia.
The Flyers have trailed at least 2-0 in seven of their last 10 games
“I don’t know what we’ve got to do,” Flyers forward Claude Giroux said “Drink one more cup of coffee? I don’t know. We’ve got to find a way to get a better start.”
Unable to solve Lundqvist, the Flyers took out their frustrations with their fists. Zac Rinaldo slugged it out with New York’s Brandon Prust in a lengthy bout the refs were in no rush to stop. Philadelphia’s Jody Shelley used a series of rights to the face to pummel Mike Rupp.
The teams kept up the trash-talking, pushing and poking for the rest of the game.
All the scrapping helped both teams score power-play goals in the final 90 seconds of the second. Gaborik sent a shot from the slot past two defenders for a 5-1 lead. Wayne Simmonds, wearing a visor after he was hit in the face by a puck last week, followed for the Flyers with his 28th goal.
Scott Hartnell added his team-high 37th in the third, but it was too late for Philadelphia.
The Rangers won the first five meetings with Philadelphia by Feb. 11, including a 2-1 victory in the Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park.
“It feels good to beat them again, and complete the deal,” Gaborik said. “With the Winter Classic and all, we’ve been kind of linked together with them for a while.”
Dating to last season, the Rangers have seven straight wins against the Flyers for the first time since Philadelphia went 13 games without a win from November 1971 to December 1973.
Voracek wanted the Flyers to look at the “bright side” if the two teams resume their rivalry in the playoffs.
“If they want to beat us, that means they’d have to beat us 10 times this year,” he said. “That’s a lot of games. I don’t think it’s going to happen”
The Flyers have been fired up lately. Coach Peter Laviolette was fined $10,000 on Monday after calling out Penguins counterpart Dan Bylsma for sending out his checking line late in Philadelphia’s 6-3 win at Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Notes: Flyers C Danny Briere sat out with a back contusion. … This is the latest the Rangers have been in first place in the East since 1994. … The Rangers are 21-3-3 when leading after the first period. … Gaborik has a point in six straight games.