NEW YORK — The line separating the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers is almost indistinguishable. Let them play each other seven times in a postseason series, and it's quite likely all seven games will be required to decide the victor.
The Rangers showed Wednesday night why if these teams meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in a few weeks, it won't be the Flyers winning that seventh game.
Playoff series are usually won by teams with superior depth and goaltending, two areas in which the Rangers hold the edge on the Flyers. Both were on display in the Rangers' 3-1 victory against the Flyers that moved them three points ahead of their rivals for second place in the Metropolitan Division and home-ice advantage in that possible postseason series.
How important is that home-ice advantage? The Rangers have won the last eight meetings with the Flyers at Madison Square Garden by a combined 31-9 score. The Flyers' last win here came on Feb. 20, 2011.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist on Wednesday made the difficult saves—all the saves, for that matter—over the first two periods. Flyers goaltender Steve Mason couldn't stop a laser beam from defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the second period that made the game 2-0 and allowed a soft back-breaking goal early in the third period that made the rest of the game academic.
It's not that Mason was particularly poor before that third goal; it's that Lundqvist was the far superior netminder. That's something that would be on full display over seven games should these teams cross paths in the playoffs.
"Our guys were ready," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "Even though Philly dominated us as far as shots (they were just 31-29 in favor of the Flyers), they got some chances at the end there, that's when your goaltender has to come up big. Tonight it was obvious that when we had some breakdowns, he was the difference."
One of those breakdowns came late in the second period with the Rangers leading 2-0. Flyers forward Adam Hall was left alone in the slot, but Lundqvist pushed across to make the save that allowed the Rangers to take a two-goal lead into the second intermission.
It was a game-swinging save by a goaltender who's won three postseason series the past two years. Mason has yet to win a postseason game in his career.
"It was a great challenge for us, to play a team that's been one of the better teams in the league," Lundqvist said. "You have to be aware of their top players, and I think we did a really good job of shutting down their top guys. We have so many guys playing well right now. We are playing with a lot of confidence and making great decisions with and without the puck."
That's the other reason why the Rangers own the edge against the Flyers—they're just a little deeper at forward and on defense.
Two of the Rangers' three goals were generated by their fourth line of Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett, while McDonagh's goal was scored with their third line of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and J.T. Miller, who was inserted into the lineup with Chris Kreider out for potentially the rest of the season with a hand injury.
That's not to say the lack of production from the Rangers' top-six forwards shouldn't be a concern—Martin St. Louis has zero goals and three assists in 12 games since being acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning—but the teams that go deep in the postseason tend to be deep at the forward position.
The Boston Bruins won a Stanley Cup in 2011 with a fourth line that remains intact today—Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton—and when the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, their fourth lines were steady contributors in nearly every game.
The Rangers don't quite boast a top six on the same level as this season's incarnations of the Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins, but it's quite the formidable group of 12 even with Kreider out long term.
If the Rangers can get past the Flyers and get on a run, they may be the one team in the East that can give the Bruins a run for their money in a seven-game series.
"We are deep. It's a good team to be on," said Boyle, who assisted on Dorsett's first-period goal. "Hank is playing out of his mind as well, so it's a pretty well-oiled machine right now. It's good, especially being on that fourth unit, to be able to contribute in different ways. If we can keep doing that, it makes our team a little more dangerous. And right on through, our top-three lines have so much skill.
"It's fun to watch. It's fun to be a part of."
That doesn't even factor the glaring difference between the Rangers and Flyers when it comes to the blue line. McDonagh could be a Norris Trophy finalist this season and, along with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, comprise one of the more formidable top-three sets of defensemen in the NHL.
Sure, the prospect of Anton Stralman and Raphael Diaz playing 16-20 minutes per night against the third lines of Stanley Cup contenders is a glaring weakness of the Rangers, but they'd probably be on par with nearly any third-pairing defensemen the Flyers could throw out against the Rangers.
The Rangers are officially the hottest team in the NHL, winners of five straight. They look like they are peaking at the right time, even with St. Louis failing to meet expectations since joining the team.
That's bad news for the Flyers and potentially bad news for anyone else the Rangers may meet in the playoffs.
"We just have to keep going here, not think too much, keep on our details," Lundqvist said. "And it's going to pay off to not make it too complicated for ourselves or think about the standings. Let's just focus on the process."
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.
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