Thursday, December 25, 2014

Can the Flyers beat Lundqvist, Rangers?

It is very difficult to confidently pick the Flyers to win their first-round series against the Rangers that begins Thursday in New York with any logic other than you "just have a feeling."

Can the Flyers beat Lundqvist, Rangers?

The often incoherent, grammatically challenged ramblings of a man who has watched too much sports, listened to too much music and devoured too many club sandwiches.

It is very difficult to confidently pick the Flyers to win their first-round series against the Rangers that begins Thursday in New York with any logic other than you “just have a feeling."

And in the Stanley Cup playoffs that is a reasonable approach, especially in a rivalry series such as the Flyers and Rangers.

The NHL postseason is an annual celebration of upsets, both mild and wild. The yearly exit of heavily favored teams, and the march of underdogs is the very nature of a sport that places so much emphasis on one position -- the goalie.

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And that is the problem.

The Flyers will arrive on the ice at Madison Square Garden with their backup goalie, Ray Emery, in net, while the Rangers will arrive with The King, Henrik Lundqvist. After a season of finally ridding themselves of the “question mark” in goal, the Flyers lost their starter, Steve Mason, to injury in the next-to-last game of the season.

The Rangers, meanwhile, are as solid in goal as just about any team in the NHL.

Fortunately, in Emery, the Flyers have one of the better backup goalies in the NHL. Emery has a history of playing well against the Rangers and he’s never shaken by the bigness of the moment.

He’s been through enough in his career to smirk at the pressure of playing at Madison Square Garden and there is every reason to believe he can help the Flyers put an end to their eight-game losing streak in Manhattan.

Emery can be that good.

The real issue, however, is down at the other end of the ice. Even if Mason had not been injured, the Flyers would be hard-pressed to win this series against Lundqvist.

For those fans who despise the New York Rangers -- and there are many -- Lundqvist is the most annoying of opponents. He is both gracious and talented. He respects the game and his opponents. He plays with the coolness of a Swede and he loves the pressure of big games.

He appears to be one of those guys who would be just as comfortable as the lead singer of a rock band, as president of a country, or as a financial power broker. He’s cool, calm and collected … but he’s yet to earn his stripes in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And this is where the Flyers have some hope.

Because for all his success, the King has not reigned in the playoffs … and the Flyers will have to make him think about that early.

As much as a Game One loss would be unsettling to the Rangers in terms of lost home-ice advantage, it would be even more unsettling to Lundqvist. He might not show it -- and he might make 65 saves in a loss -- but a loss would be a loss, and Lundqvist HAS to win this series.

But this will be a tall task for the Flyers in more aspects than just in goal. Unlike the Flyers’ other blood rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers will not come unglued and lose composure if things get physical.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has far more control of his troops in those cases, and you cannot count on a game spinning out of control and the Flyers punching through to win on power plays.

The Flyers will be facing a Rangers team that has managed to take away Claude Giroux’s space in the neutral and offensive zones, especially at Madison Square Garden. Thus, the Flyers’ boasting of seven 20-goal scorers will have to pay dividends with some other forwards scoring the big goal.

The Flyers’ best chances will likely come on what will likely be limited power plays. The Flyers have a unique power play in which twin walls can be set in front of Lundqvist in the persons of Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds.

Take away his ability to see shots and even Lundqvist will lose his crown.

It is also likely the Flyers will attempt to wear down a good Rangers defense, especially Ryan McDonagh, who won’t be able to hide a damaged left shoulder. The banging should start early and we will see if it rattles the Rangers.

Overall, the Rangers defense is solidly led by McDonagh and Dan Girardi and is blessed with good depth players in Marc Staal and the underrated Anton Stralman to lug the puck around their zone.

Up front, the Rangers are quick, but hardly possess an overwhelming offense. They have just enough goal scoring -- with guys like Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Derek Stephan and Mats Zuccarello who can score big goals.

They have also added Martin St. Louis and, in a bit of irony, we’ll all be waiting to see if it is the ex-Tampa Bay players on the Rangers – Richards and St. Louis -- or former Lightning star Vinny Lecavalier of the Flyers, who scores the critical goals.

The Flyers defense has been shored up with the acquisition of Andrew MacDonald, and under coach Craig Berube, the Flyers play a global sort of defense that will at least keep them in most playoff games – and certainly give them a chance to win if Giroux bursts through with a big game.

The Flyers have a better offense, the Rangers a better defense. Both coaches are solid with defensive postures. The special teams are basically level. The Flyers can crank up their game on the shoulders of Giroux, while the Rangers have a couple of guys who can snipe.

So, in the end, if you think the Flyers can beat the Rangers, you really have to think they can get through a stingy team – and then beat Lundqvist while starting the series with their backup goalie.

Nuf Ced.

Al Morganti is a member of the WIP Morning Show (94.1 FM) weekday mornings from 5:30 til 10 and a hockey analyst for Comcast SportsNet. His twitter handle is @nufced.

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About this blog
Al Morganti is a contributor at Philly.com and writes about sports and entertainment. Reach Al at nufced04@gmail.com.

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