New York Rangers' 5 Biggest Questions in Playoff Series vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Jeremy Fuchs@@jaf78Correspondent IIIApril 13, 2014

New York Rangers' 5 Biggest Questions in Playoff Series vs. Philadelphia Flyers

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    The New York Rangers will take on the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 2014 NHL playoffs in what should be a fantastic series.

    The heated rivals—who split the season series 2-2, with each team winning both of their games on home ice—are pretty evenly matched.

    On paper, the Flyers have a deeper and more explosive offense, with seven players having scored 20 or more goals. The Rangers, in comparison, have just two 20-goal scorers (that doesn't take into account Martin St. Louis, who scored 30 goals this season but just one with the Rangers).

    The Rangers have the much better defense, as they rank fourth in the league in goals against, while the Flyers rank 19th.

    So what will it take for the Rangers to win this series? What are the biggest questions facing the team?

    Read on to find out. 

Is Ryan McDonagh Ready?

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    Ryan McDonagh is ready to go for the postseason, as he told Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News:

    I told them I’m ready to go and it’s his (Vigneault’s) decision, so we felt it would be better to give it one more (game) of full rest. We’ve got three days of practice (between Saturday and next Thursday). It’ll be enough to get ready for the games that are really important.

    I feel really good. It’s amazing, the last two days especially, I’ve been able to get my shot back harder, and skating is no issue, so getting the full strength and game speed back, I’ll be good for next week.”

    The Rangers are going to need him to combat the high-flying Flyers. If he's not ready to go (fully ready), the Rangers will be dispatched quickly.

    It's hard to measure McDonagh's impact on the team. He plays nearly 25 minutes a game while remaining plus-11 and scored 14 goals and added 29 assists this season. He was named the team MVP and won the Players' Player award, according to Steve Zipay of Newsday

    What we've seen with McDonagh is a remarkable maturation from a quality defender into an elite one. He is garnering Norris Trophy consideration, rightfully so, and has established himself as the best Rangers' defender since Brian Leetch.

    With McDonagh, the Rangers have one of the deepest defensive corps in the playoffs. McDonagh and Dan Girardi make up one of the best defensive tandems in the NHL, and Marc Staal would be a top-pair defender on most teams. The Rangers have the defensive depth to make a big run.

    But if McDonagh is not fully healthy, or if his condition is a bit off, then the dynamic Flyers offense will run all over the Rangers. 

Can the Rangers Stop Claude Giroux?

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    Claude Giroux is one of the best players in the league.

    And despite a slow start, he still managed to score 28 goals and notch 57 assists.

    To put that in perspective, the Rangers' leading scorer, Mats Zuccarello, has 59 total points.

    Giroux is a dynamic playmaker with a blistering shot and incredible vision. His linemates, Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek, have combined for 113 points.

    What will the Rangers do to combat that?

    Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi will see the majority of the time against the line. When the Flyers have the last change in Philadelphia, they will try to get that line out there against John Moore and Kevin Klein. 

    We'll get to see Alain Vigneault's coaching mettle. How will he deal with not having the last change in Philadelphia? Each Rangers line is pretty responsible defensively, but there's an absolute need to have the McDonagh-Girardi pair out there against this line.

    That's the most important matchup of the series, and how the Rangers handle it will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the series. 

Which Martin St. Louis Will the Rangers Get?

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    Since being acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning, Martin St. Louis has just one goal and seven assists.

    However, in his final five games of the season, St. Louis scored five points, including three assists against the Carolina Hurricanes.

    As St. Louis told Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News:

    The last five, six games I’ve felt more like myself. I feel like I’m more playing the game and not trying to be at the right place. You come to a new team, you try to do everything the right way, and you get away a little bit from what makes you a player. You’re thinking a little too much instead of reacting, but I find myself more and more comfortable each game in doing that.

    The Rangers are certainly hoping that that's true. Quite simply, the Rangers need St. Louis to be a star. They need him to be a constant force. They need him to match wits with Claude Giroux.

    Because the Rangers are not as good of an offensive team as the Flyers are, the Rangers need St. Louis, among others, to keep pace. 

    A dominant St. Louis, the same guy who scored 29 goals in 62 games with the Lightning, will make the presence of Giroux not as imposing.

    If he's invisible like he has been for most of his time with the Rangers, then they will need to rely on top-notch defensive play to win. As we've seen the past few years, teams cannot win on defense alone.

How Will the Power Play Perform?

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    Last year, the Rangers' power play was abysmal, finishing 23rd in the league with a 15.7 percent conversion rate. It was even worse in the playoffs, as they finished with just four power-play goals in 12 games.

    This year, it's been better. Besides having better movement and more chances, they're scoring more, too, converting on 18.1 percent of their chances.

    But of late, the team has been struggling with the extra man. Since the Olympics, the Rangers have scored just nine times in 70 chances, a dismal 12 percent conversion rate. 

    There have been chances, for sure, but the team as a whole has struggled gaining entry into the zone.

    That's going to be key against the Flyers, who have the sixth-best penalty-killing unit in the league. Special teams in the playoffs have heightened importance. If a team consistently generates good chances on the power play, then it will have a good chance of winning the series. Conversely, if a team cannot generate chances, like the Rangers couldn't do last year, then the other team gains momentum.

    The Rangers have the tools to perform successfully on the man advantage. Brad Richards has been better on the point, and the unit of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot has been dynamic at times. But they haven't been able to convert with regularity. 

    It was promising to see the Rangers convert twice against the Carolina Hurricanes a few games ago. But then in the next game, they went 0-for-4 against Buffalo.

    This unit will need to rely heavily on Richards, Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash. Nash has to set up in front of the net, St. Louis has to be aggressive on the half-wall, and Richards has to ably direct traffic, and use his bomb from the point.

    If they can do that, they should be fine. But if they can't even enter the zone with speed and numbers, it will be a tough series.

Will Rick Nash Rise to the Occasion?

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    Rick Nash was brought in to be a difference-maker in the playoffs.

    In 12 postseason games last season with the Rangers, he was all but invisible. 

    He had just one goal and four assists. He had chances (42 shots), but he just couldn't convert.

    The Rangers desperately needed Nash to be that first-line winger, and he simply wasn't.

    This year, he's been pretty good. After battling injuries and a slow start, Nash ended up with 26 goals, including 19 since the start of the new year.

    He has shown a proclivity for the big moment with nine game-winning goals, which is tied for third in the league.

    Can he translate that to the playoffs? If Nash is the dominant winger we have seen at some parts of the season, then he has the skill to take over games and could easily propel the Rangers to a series victory. That means getting to the middle of the ice with authority.

    But if he's waffling on the outside, toward the half-wall, then he's just not as productive. It's a matter of will with Nash. Last year in the postseason, it didn't seem like he was fully engaged.

    The Rangers will need him to be if they want to win.