Philadelphia Flyers: 5 Reasons They Will Catch the New York Rangers
This is what it's all about.
Thirteen regular season games remain for the Flyers, and despite currently holding third place in the Atlantic Division, they find themselves in an advantageous position, and could seriously challenge for the top seed in the conference with a strong performance down the stretch.
Four of the top six playoff seeds currently belong to Atlantic Division teams, and only eight points separate the Flyguys from first place in the East's toughest division.
Given the team's recent play, I am convinced the Flyers will catch the New York Rangers and claim their second consecutive Atlantic Division crown.
Questioning my reasoning? Read on for the five reasons supporting my claims, which, admittedly, even I did not believe a few short weeks ago.
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In early February, Kimmo Timonen bluntly answered a question regarding the New York Rangers dominance in the battle between the Broad Street Bullies and Broadway Blue Shirts this season and the difference between the two teams.
In a game where direct answers are about as common as fully-disclosed injury reports, Timonen's answer resonated, and it was backed up by the numbers.
In five games against the Rangers this season, the Flyers are being outscored 19-8, and they have not been able to put more than two goals past Henrik Lundqvist in any game this year.
But, of course, all of those games occurred when Bum-galov was in net (or backup Sergei Bobrovsky).
Now, however, the Flyers have a goaltender able to match the play of the Rangers' All-Star netminder as Ilya Bryzgalov has turned his season around all together, recording shutouts in four of his last five starts, including three consecutive goose-eggs.
If Bryz keeps it up, and by that I mean making up for his early season woes by never allowing another goal, the division will be the least of the Flyers worries, as they will have what every team covets heading into the playoffs—the hot goaltender—giving them the inside track to the Stanley Cup Finals.
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Ilya Bryzgalov has stood on his head at times in this successful run, but the defense has played as much of a part in the team's turnaround.
Adding Nick Grossmann and Pavel Kubina gave the Flyers a bit more size and experience on the blueline, not to mention the ever-important intangible known as toughness.
Rookie Erik Gustafsson has stepped up since getting himself healthy and earning a spot with the big club, while Braydon Coburn, Andreas Lilja and Matt Carle are all playing their best hockey of 2011-12.
It was astonishing how well the defense was playing in the beginning of Bryzgalov's run of shutouts, as Kimmo Timonen missed his first regular season action in nearly three seasons, missing five games before returning for Tuesday's shutout against the Devils.
Andrej Meszaros has also been out since March 4.
It seems the D rallied around missing its two biggest names, and given the recovery time Timonen was allowed, he is now able to return to the lineup refreshed and prepared for yet another playoff run that will see the 36-year-old Finn log 25-plus minutes per game.
The penalty kill has been phenomenal of late, as well, having allowed only two power play goals against in March, both in Sunday's 4-1 loss in New Jersey.
The Flyers have proven capable of scoring with anybody all year, and now the defense and goaltending have stepped it up and are stealing games when the offense is out shot or simply snake-bitten when it comes to putting the biscuit in the basket.
The physicality of the Rangers' D, and their willingness to block shots have been as much of a difference in the Flyers matchups against New York this season, and now the orange and black have an answer for that previous disadvantage.
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G's 80 points are the second highest total in the league (Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos- 84), and his 55 assists tie him for the NHL lead in helpers with Henrik Sedin.
Claude Giroux is in the midst of a true breakout season, and now it's time to finish.
Where the Flyers D and goaltending have stepped up this month, the goal scorers have had a bit of trouble finding the back of the net.
If the Flyers catch the Rangers, it will be because Claude Giroux closed out his amazing year with an MVP-like stretch run.
Giroux has had a flair for the dramatic all season with OT winners, highlight breakaway and shootout goals and all-around great two-way play, and these clutch performances are what I believe will land Giroux the Hart Trophy when all is said and done.
I expect No. 28 to go on another scoring tear to add to his great statistics while carrying the struggling offense through the final 13 games.
Winning at Home
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The Flyers have won four consecutive home games, and seem to have turned a corner at the Wells Fargo Center.
Long considered one of the best home-ice advantages in hockey, Philly was not friendly to the orange and black early on, as the Flyers' home record was among the worst in the Eastern Conference.
They have since climbed to 10th in the East in home record (18-10-5), and following tonight's game in Long Island and Saturday in Boston, the Flyers will play eight of their last 11 games in Philadelphia.
The playoff atmosphere will begin to develop down at the Big Joint, meaning the Most Intimidating Fans in Hockey will see it necessary to defend their title, creating the home-ice advantage for their Bullies that was missing for a great part of the season.
The Flyers have a bit of a gap to cover between themselves and the Rangers, but with a big home game against their NY rivals on April 3 looming, if the Flyers can tighten up the race they could be able to put the Rangers in the rear-view mirror with a victory—given they Flyguys take care of business at home in the meantime.
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I see the Rangers' position much like the Flyers' last season.
They have asserted their superiority in the East for most of the season and are now kind of just waiting for the playoffs.
The Flyers and Penguins, however, are fighting for seeding and will see each other three times over the course of the last 11 games.
Couple that particularly intense matchup with eight games in their final 13 being against playoff teams, and the Flyers will not be looking at an emotional letdown until the end of the playoffs.
As the pressure picks up and the Flyers continue to play their best hockey of the year, I foresee the Rangers folding under that pressure, and their full season of dominance over Philly going for naught by losing to the Flyers and giving up first place in the division/conference on Tuesday April 3 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Think I'm right? Think I'm out of my mind? Let me hear about it in the comments.