5 Crucial X-Factors for Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers
The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers haven't met in the playoffs in 17 years, but the bitter rivals will face one another in one of the most highly anticipated first-round showdowns of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The 45-31-6 Rangers only finished two points ahead of the 42-30-10 Flyers, but, in doing so, will enjoy home-ice advantage when the best-of-seven series begins Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
Philadelphia is 27-20 all-time against New York in the postseason but has won just four of its last 11 regular-season get-togethers with the Blue Shirts, after the two sides split their four meetings this year.
It's a series that could go either way but will likely need every bit of seven games to get there.
Here's a look at five crucial X-factors for the Flyers heading into their opening-round matchup.
The Top Line
Your best players have to be your best players.
It's one of the most overused cliches in sports, but that doesn't mean it's not true.
During the regular season, Philadelphia's top-line trio of Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Scott Hartnell combined for 71 goals and 200 points. Giroux and Voracek finished 1-2 in team scoring for the second-straight season, while Hartnell returned to form after a dreadful 11-point campaign a year ago.
But in the team's regular season series with the Rangers, Philly's top line was virtually invisible.
In a combined 11 games (Hartnell missed the October meeting with New York), the Flyers' most potent offensive group combined for just one goal and four points. Neither Giroux nor Hartnell found the back of the net against New York this year, and Philly's captain failed to register even a single shot on goal in two of the four head-to-head encounters.
The Rangers were one of the best defensive teams in the league during the regular season, allowing an average of just 2.32 goals against per outing. What's more, New York limited the Flyers to just eight conversions in their four meetings.
In other words, it won't be easy for Philadelphia's top line to make an impact offensively, but they have to find a way.
When the Flyers last claimed a playoff series (2012 vs. Pittsburgh), Giroux, Voracek and Hartnell combined for 10 goals and 25 points. If the trio is half that good against New York, Philly will find its way into the second round.
The Power Play
During the regular season, the Flyers boasted one of the league's top power plays.
The Orange and Black finished third among all NHL squads in man-advantage markers (58) and seventh in power-play percentage (19.8). Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds finished third among all NHLers with 15 man-advantage conversions while Giroux was fourth overall with 37 power-play points.
But, in four regular-season get-togethers against the Rangers, Philadelphia's power play failed to make much of an impact.
The Flyers were just 2-for-13 (15.4 percent) with the man-advantage against New York, with Simmonds and Mark Streit serving as the only Philly skaters to solve a Rangers penalty kill which finished third in the league at 85.3 percent.
Unlike the Flyers, the Blue Shirts were one of the least penalized teams during the regular season, averaging just under 10 minutes in penalties per outing. Power play opportunities won't be easy to come by, but if the Flyers can find a way to take advantage of them more often than not, it could go a long way toward shifting the series in favor of the Orange and Black.
There will always be questions surrounding Philadelphia's goaltending, especially come playoff time.
But this year, those questions may not actually be warranted.
After Giroux, Steve Mason was the Flyers' best player this season, posting a 33-18-7 overall record to go along with four shutouts, a 2.50 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
And the sixth-year netminder was a rock star down the stretch.
Mason didn't allow more than three goals in any of his final 12 starts of the season. In fact, the 6'4", 215-pound goaltender surrendered just 23 goals during that stretch while posting a 1.97 goals-against average coupled with a .933 save percentage.
And Philly's number one netminder was equally impressive head-to-head against the Rangers.
In three starts against New York, Mason went 2-1 and surrendered just six goals against (2.00 goals-against average) while turning aside 89 of the Rangers' 95 total shots (.937 save percentage).
With Henrik Lundqvist at the other end, New York has the goaltender to steal games in this series, but if Mason replicates his regular season success in the playoffs, the Flyers may just have that kind of netminder as well.
Home Ice Advantage
The Rangers closed the regular season by winning nine of their final 13 games and claiming 20 of a possible 26 points during that stretch.
With that surge, New York secured second place in the Metropolitan Division and home-ice advantage over the Flyers in their opening-round playoff showdown. As such, not only will the series open with two games at Madison Square Garden, but the Rangers will have an opportunity to advance to the second round without ever having to win a game at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, in order for the Flyers to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they'll have to do something they haven't done in 1,149 days.
That's right, Philadelphia hasn't won in New York since February 20, 2011. That's a stretch of eight straight empty trips to Madison Square Garden in which the Rangers outscored the Flyers an astounding 31-9 during that time.
The law of averages tells Philly fans the Flyers are due for a win at MSG. That's a far cry from actually securing a victory in enemy territory though.
Philadelphia dropped its regular season finale with the Rangers in New York on March 26. That win stretched the Blue Shirts' lead in the division and effectively cost the Flyers a chance at home ice in the opening round. Could it also have cost Philly their ability to advance to the second round?
When Craig Berube took over the Flyers on October 7, he inherited a winless team that was offensively challenged and defensively in shambles.
42 wins later, Berube and the Flyers finished third in the Metropolitan Division and sixth overall in the Eastern Conference and are back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus a season ago.
Under Berube, Philadelphia was a more defensively structured team with enhanced accountability. Defense was viewed as a full five-man effort and offense was generated through adherence to defensive responsibilities.
And while Berube may be new to the playoff scene as a coach, he acquired plenty of postseason experience as a player. The 17-year NHL veteran reached the playoffs nine times in his playing career to the tune of 89 postseason contests.
But postseason success is different than success during the regular season, and it remains to be seen how the rookie head coach will respond during the season's most pressure-packed moments.