Friday, April 09, 2010

The playoffs start today

Officially, the National Hockey League season doesn’t conclude until the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks hook up for Game 1,230 on Sunday (I bet you’ll all be revved up for that one), but for fans of the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, the playoffs start today at Madison Square Garden, where the Flyers and Rangers start and home and home set that will officially determine which team qualifies for the playoffs.

Now, there’s still a scenario whereby both teams qualify for the playoffs, but it’s complicated. One scenario sees the Rangers would need to win both games with one going to overtime, while the Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens lose the rest of their games. That would mean New York has 88 points and Philadelphia 87, allowing the Flyers to vault past either Boston or Montreal on the basis of having more wins. The Rangers could also gather three points from the set and vault past the Bruins if Boston loses out, as then New York passes Boston on the basis of more wins. Both scenarios are possible- the Bruins have to play the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, and neither are easy propositions at this time of year; while the Canadiens have to play their hated rival the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, and rivalry games are always tough- but it’s more likely the loser of the home and home set will have to resort to their T.V. sets to experience playoff hockey, while the other gets to live it.

The Flyers have the easier task since they only need to win one of the two contests, whereas the Rangers will need a minimum of three points to gain a playoff berth. However, the series starts favourably for New York, since they’ll have their home crowd to contend with in Game 1. With that said, it’s time to peer into the Crystal Ball™ and tell you who’s going to the playoffs.


In the playoffs, it’s a rule to throw out how well the teams were playing heading into their opening round series because, over a seven game set, the team that matches up better with their opponents will almost always win the series. Early struggles can be corrected, and eventually you’ll see the other team enough times over the course of the series to know how to beat them. Only lapses in concentration mean the better team doesn’t actually win (see Red Wings, Detroit in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final).

However, this is a regular season, one-off (well, okay, “two-off”) event, so we’ve got to see how well the Flyers and Rangers are playing heading into the contest. In their last ten games, the Flyers’ and Rangers’ records are nearly identical, with the wins and losses flipped. New York is the hotter of the two, coming in at a 6-3-1 clip whereas Philadelphia is playing at 3-6-1 rate.

From a Flyers perspective, there’s not a whole lot to hang their hats on. Since Brian Boucher took over in net for the injured Michael Leighton (who was himself an injury replacement to Ray Emery), Philadelphia is 4-6-2, scoring just 29 times in those 12 games, while giving up 31 goals. Endemic to the Flyers’ problems has been the play of Mike Richards, who has tallied just three goals and six points over the 12 game span, projecting out a point pace that is well below his personal best of 80 points last season. Daniel Briere actually leads all Flyers with seven points over the 12 game stretch, which may be music to Flyers fans’ ears in the midst of Briere’s sub-par campaign. The goaltending has been adequate from Boucher, who has posted a .905 save percentage over the stretch, with Boucher collecting all four wins, though he has improved in the last three games in allowing just four goals (three against the Red Wings). The only other goaltender to receive significant playing time was Johan Backlund, who relieved Boucher in the Flyers’ 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and performed admirably, giving up just two goals on 24 shots.

However, Boucher’s performance pales in comparison to the performance of Henrik Lundqvist, whom the Rangers have ridden on their current streak. Aside from the ugly 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Lundqvist and the Rangers have allowed all of two goals in the month of April, including an emphatic 5-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Brandon Prust- believe it or not- has been key to the Rangers’ hot April, with three goals in four games, with players such as Marc Staal and Aaron Voros- neither known as goal scorers- picking up a pair of goals themselves. Marian Gaborik, the focal point of the offence, has “only” scored once in April, though he does have two assists. The secondary scoring is a big part of the Rangers’ late run and it comes at an opportune time, giving New York a balanced lineup with which to work with against the Flyers.


As stated previously, the Flyers are struggling while the Rangers are, well, flying. Stretching the Rangers’ run to March 24’s 5-0 whitewash of the New York Islanders, the Rangers have scored 31 times in winning six of eight games, which is an average of nearly four goals a game. Leading the way is the familiar face of Gaborik, with five goals, with Staal behind him with three. Stretched over the whole season, though, and the Flyers gain the advantage. Philadelphia have six players over 40 points, with two- Kimmo Timonen and Simon Gagne- on the cusp with 39 points, while the Rangers only have three in Gaborik, Vaclav Prospal and Brandon Dubinsky. The Flyers, thus, are poised to break out of their slump (especially with Jeff Carter coming back) over the course of this series with so much firepower, whereas the luck of the Rangers may be running out.


This is a bit of a mixed bag. On one side, Chris Pronger gives the Flyers a clear anchor on defence, whereas there isn’t a Ranger close to that stature this season (Michael Del Zotto has the highest point total among Ranger defencemen at 37 points, but he’s a horrible -20). On the other side, three of the Flyers’ regulars on defence are minuses (Ryan Parent (-13) Oskars Bartulis (-12) and Lukas Krajicek (-9)), whereas only Del Zotto and Dan Girardi (who comes in at a respectable -2) are the only minuses on the Ranger rearguard. Therefore, while the Flyers have the edge at the top of the depth chart, the Rangers have the deeper cast, which gives them the advantage.


You don’t need to go far to see which team comes out on top. It’s the Rangers by a mile, because that’s how great Lundqvist is. Lundqvist is 8th in the league in save percentage with a .920 clip, and has literally carried the team on his back through this late surge. The only games where the Rangers have lost is because Lundqvist did not perform at the level he is capable of. This kind of goaltending is the stuff Flyers fans have been begging for ever since Ron Hextall left the pipes, but unfortunately they’ll have to settle for Boucher. Fortunately, Boucher hasn’t been a slouch at .905 since becoming the starter, but the chances he’ll outplay Lundqvist are highly unlikely.


This is tough. Each team has strengths where the other has weaknesses- Philadelphia has the offence and top-level defending, whereas New York has the goaltender and the deeper blueline. This is, thus, likely going to come down to the intangibles and, right now, the Rangers have the ingredients. New York has been the hungrier team down the stretch (and, admittedly, all season) and while one hopes the Flyers- who have been listless all season- find their edge for this crucial set, the chances of that are low. Philadelphia will likely manage a single point in the set- at home on Sunday- but that’s it. With King Henrik leading the way and a merely decent goaltender at the other end, it’ll be the Rangers who will punch their ticket to the post-season and the Flyers who will have all summer to wonder why they can’t ever seem to land a goaltender.


Philadelphia 2 at NY Rangers 4

NY Rangers 3 at Philadelphia 2 (OT)


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