The biggest key to the Stanley Cup Playoff series between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers could be which team plays the best on the road.
In four regular-season games this season, the home team won each time. The Flyers have won three in a row against the Rangers at Wells Fargo Center, and the Rangers have won seven in a row against the Flyers at Madison Square Garden.
"Home-ice advantage is always better. MSG will be rocking," Rangers forward Rick Nash said. "It's a huge rivalry. It's going to be a fun one to play in. You play in the regular-season games [against Philadelphia] and they're that much more intense than the regular ones. So the playoffs are going to be much more exciting."
The Rangers were the better road team this season, with their 25 wins on opposing ice the most of any team in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia won 18 times on the road but their 110 goals away from home was one fewer than the Rangers, and the Flyers had the League's best road power play.
The Rangers scored four goals in two games in Philadelphia and the Flyers totaled six, including four on 31 shots against Henrik Lundqvist on March 1.
In the games in New York, the momentum shifted completely to the Rangers. In two games in New York, Philadelphia scored two goals, and their power play combined to go 1-for-5. New York had seven goals; three on 29 shots against Steve Mason on March 26, and four on 35 shots against backup Ray Emery on Jan. 12.
The Flyers have won the previous three times they've faced the Rangers in the postseason, but to win this year would require them to win at least once in New York, something they haven't done since Feb. 20, 2011.
"We are due in Madison Square Garden," Flyers forward Jakub Voracek said. "I don’t think we won there in three years. Since I've been here, we haven’t won there.
"It’s a tough building to play in ... we are due to win some game there. You hope this is right timing."
In the first month of the season, Rangers forwards looked like a discombobulated bunch. But as they adjusted to the system implemented by new coach Alain Vigneault, they morphed into one of the League's deepest and most efficient groups.
As the season moved along the Rangers developed impressive chemistry up front. It added up to a balanced offensive attack featuring nine players with at least 14 goals, the most of any NHL team.
The big names up front are hard to miss, starting with Nash Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. After years as an elite goal scorer, Nash's numbers weren't overwhelming this season. He struggled with an injury early on and adjusted his game as the season progressed, deferring to linemates and spending more time on the penalty kill.
The top-two lines consist of some big names, and in some cases some very big paychecks. All that talent among the top six forwards is buoyed by a third line of Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot that undoubtedly was the Rangers' most consistent.
New York's depth up front doesn't end there. The rotation between Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, Derek Dorsett and Daniel Carcillo made for a feisty fourth line that down opposing defenses. Boyle and Moore also are the Rangers' two best faceoff men.
Added together, it makes for a group with very few glaring flaws.
The Flyers have one of the deepest groups of forwards in the League, and if Vincent Lecavalier stays at center on the fourth line they'll have at least one 20-goal scorer on every line.
Coach Craig Berube liberally juggled his bottom three lines, but the trio of Claude Giroux between Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek remained intact for the majority of the season and provided the most consistent production. Giroux, after needing 15 games to score his first goal, piled up the points to finish third in League scoring. Giroux plays in all situations for the Flyers and takes every important faceoff.
The second line likely will feature Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. Simmonds had a breakout season and is one of the team's most relentless forecheckers. His net-front presence makes the Flyers one of the League's best on the power play.
Sean Couturier centers a checking line that includes Matt Read. Berube has rotated the third forward on that line from a group that includes Steve Downie, Michael Raffl and Zac Rinaldo. Berube believed Rinaldo blossomed in that role prior to a four-game suspension for an illegal check to the head.
Since his shift to the fourth line Lecavalier has played some of his best hockey. Adam Hall will play on the fourth line and is a top penalty killer and faceoff man.
The Rangers defense begins and ends with the top pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. The duo has been tasked all season with shadowing the opponent's top forward lines. McDonagh and Girardi ranked first and second, respectively, among Rangers players in average ice time per game, earning major minutes in every situation. Though Girardi continued to provide a bruising defensive presence and booming shot, McDonagh blossomed into one of the League's top defensemen, leading all Rangers defenders in goals, points, power-play points and plus/minus.
Defensive responsibilities became more evenly distributed once Marc Staal returned to full health. Paired most of the season with Anton Stralman, Staal found his form and played some of his best hockey in years. His ferociousness in the defensive zone returned, and over time he began making plays in the offensive end.
New York solidified its defense corps with two trades, acquiring stay-at-home veteran Kevin Klein from the Nashville Predators and fleet-footed Raphael Diaz from the Vancouver Canucks. Diaz provided a much-needed right-handed shot on the power play, and Klein served as a mentor for 23-year-old John Moore.
Moore's time with Klein certainly paid off; when McDonagh missed time with a shoulder injury, Moore was well-prepared to play on the top pairing with Girardi.
Other than McDonagh, the Rangers blue line doesn't pose much of a scoring threat, but it's a deep unit with plenty of veteran savvy.
Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn will see the majority of the minutes at even strength and as the top defense pair on the penalty kill. It's a strong blend of Timonen's veteran savvy and Coburn's skating, strength and long reach. Timonen plays the point on the top power-play unit.
The second pair of Mark Streit and Nicklas Grossmann features the Flyers' best offensive defenseman and its top shot-blocker. Streit arguably has the hardest shot on the team and is at his best in transition. He is the main triggerman on the second power-play unit. Grossmann is big, strong and a physical presence in the defensive zone. He sees a great deal of time on the penalty kill.
The third pair of Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn sees less 5-on-5 time but plays a large role on special teams. Schenn leads Philadelphia's defensemen in hits and isn't afraid to get in front of a shot. Schenn is one of the top penalty killers, and MacDonald, since his arrival from the New York Islanders, has joined Streit, his former Islanders teammate, at the point on the second power play. MacDonald is among the League leaders in blocked shots.
Henrik Lundqvist once again is the foundation for much of the Rangers' success.
Lundqvist struggled through a difficult opening month, including a low point when he was pulled less than halfway through an 8-1 loss Oct. 8 against the San Jose Sharks after allowing four goals on 26 shots.
Six months later, Lundqvist has returned to the form that won him the 2012 Vezina Trophy. As Cam Talbot established himself as a solid backup, Lundqvist continued to improve his play and give Vigneault no choice but to start him almost every game.
Lundqvist flourished under his increasing workload. During a crucial January stretch in which the Rangers looked to make a move in the Metropolitan Division standings, Lundqvist easily could have been distracted by the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics. Instead he played his best hockey of the season, allowing two or fewer goals 10 times in 11 starts while going 9-2-0. And he still won a silver medal in Sochi with Sweden.
Now the Rangers' all-time leader in regular season wins and shutouts, Lundqvist appears locked in for another deep playoff run. He'll start the postseason 11 wins shy of Mike Richter's Rangers record for wins, so if he breaks the record, the Rangers will be on their way to their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years.
After four long seasons, Steve Mason has re-emerged as a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. He's won 30 games for the first time since his breakout rookie season, and has the full faith of his teammates and coaching staff. Mason will turn 26 in May and said he finally feels mature enough to handle the rigors of being a starting NHL goaltender.
Mason was forced out of the Flyers' second-to-last game of the regular season with an upper-body injury, but coach Craig Berube said he expects Mason to be in goal for Game 1.
In the event Mason can't go, the Flyers are in good hands with backup Ray Emery. The 31-year-old has provided solid play when Mason has needed time off. He has playoff experience, helping the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 and was the backup to Corey Crawford when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup last spring.
There's no disputing that John Tortorella's slow, grinding approach was successful in New York. But the Rangers decided it was time for a change when New York was eliminated by the Boston Bruins in five games in the second round of the 2013 playoffs.
They may have found the perfect replacement in Vigneault. The former Vancouver Canucks coach brought a drastically different game plan to Madison Square Garden and enjoyed success. After the early hiccups, Vigneault managed to implement his free-wheeling system, utilizing New York's speed and turning the Rangers into an exciting, up-and-down team the opposition had trouble keeping up with.
Vigneault's calm, collected approach to his players has been a change of pace, and his prior experience with Vancouver in the playoffs could be a major asset for New York.
Berube was in his seventh season as an NHL assistant coach when he was promoted to replace Peter Laviolette three games into this season. He quickly put his stamp on the Flyers by demanding the players get into better shape by stressing up-tempo skating drills in practice. He instituted a defense-first game plan while stressing an aggressive forecheck.
He is respected for his honesty, with many saying his best attribute is his ability to criticize without embarrassing.
Berube showed a great touch with his roster. He shifted Raffl up and down the lineup, showed confidence in Mason early and never wavered, and shifted Lecavalier, a 400-goal scorer, to the fourth line without disrupting chemistry. The players respect Berube and they respond to him.
With some of the League's top playmakers on the roster, the Rangers were expected to shine on the power play; especially under Vigneault, who led a Canucks power play that consistently was among the League's best. But New York struggled through occasional droughts with the man-advantage, although it had occasional scoring outbursts. It was an improvement from the unit that finished 23rd last season.
New York's true strength on special teams turned out to be its penalty kill, which was among the most effective in the NHL. For years the Rangers penalty kill was an asset under Tortorella, and it didn't skip a beat with Vigneault in charge.
Moore complemented a unit already led by a strong defense down low, Carl Hagelin's speed and Boyle's reach. Even Nash became an important part of the unit after killing penalties for Canada at the Olympics.
Everything runs through Giroux at the left halfwall on the Flyers' top power-play unit. He has the option to shoot, send it to Timonen at the point or whip a cross-ice pass to Voracek for a one-timer. Simmonds and Hartnell provide strong net-front presence.
The second unit is keyed by Lecavalier's one-timer from the right circle, and Streit can hammer the puck from the point.
One area of concern is the power play's home/road split. Philadelphia had one of the worst success rates with the extra man at home but the best in the League on the road.
The penalty kill has been one of the most consistent areas all season despite Philadelphia being one of the most penalized teams in the League. That unit has been at its best since the Olympic break and was a major reason the Flyers were able to solidify a playoff spot.
Henrik Lundqvist -- One Rangers player is capable of winning a series by himself, and it's the man in the mask. Throughout his career, Lundqvist has stifled and frustrated opposing offenses on the biggest stage. He's given every indication he can do it again. Playing behind arguably the deepest defense corps he's had in years, Lundqvist will be relied on to bring the Stanley Cup back to New York.
The hope is that Richards and St. Louis can come together like they did when they won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite their depth and scoring power, the Rangers will only go as far as their goaltender can take them.
Mark Streit -- With the Flyers' deep group of forwards, the team doesn't have to worry too much about getting offense from its defense. However, they do rely on strong transition play, which starts with the defenders getting the puck out of the defensive zone with smart passes or by skating it out. Streit is the best on the team at the latter. He's skilled enough to make a clean breakout pass or to lead the rush. He's also smart enough to know when to jump into a play to create an odd-man situation. Streit is the one game-breaker the Flyers have on the back end and can be a smart secret weapon.
RANGERS WILL WIN IF …
They maintain the balance and chemistry that has led them all season. Vigneault intends on rolling four forward lines and three defense pairs, so everyone will be counted on to fulfill their specific role and stick to the game plan. McDonagh also must demonstrate the confidence and playmaking ability he showed before getting hurt. Providing that supplemental offense is a key to the Rangers' attack.
FLYERS WILL WIN IF ...
Flyers will win if ... They play smart but physical hockey. Philadelphia was one of the most aggressive teams in the League, and their big, strong forwards are tasked with getting pucks deep and being physical on opposing defensemen. It created offense but also led to them become one of the most penalized teams in the League. Strong penalty killing helped offset all the penalties, but spending too much time shorthanded is a recipe for an early exit. Berube has stressed smart, physical play, and if his players respond they should advance.
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