Two historic rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers, will face off for an exciting and off-the-wall quarterfinal playoff series that will be sure to push both teams to their fullest and leave the winner a sure contender for the Stanley Cup. The writers for the Flyers, Rangers, Bleacherreport, major newspapers in each city, and even ESPN have all posted series previews that focus on stats going into the series, key players, and other pieces of information. What I believe to be the single most important part of this series will be the adjustments that each club, coach and player makes as the series progresses. Here are some of the key adjustments that will have to be made, figured out, and exploited.
There is no denying that the Flyers are weak on the back-end. The Rangers, as they have in every contest against the Flyers, will seek to exploit this weakness with a hard forecheck and constant pressure. But, the Flyers’ defense will have to adjust for different reasons as this series begins. It is a given that the Flyers will only win if they can cleanly exit the defensive zone, limit turnovers, and play tight defense. What is not given is who they will be facing.
With the loss of Chris Kreider, the streakiness of Rick Nash, the slumping of Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, and the decision as to who will be tasked with marking Claude Giroux, the top two lines for the Rangers cannot be clearly predicted. The guaranteed members of the Rangers’ top two lines are Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Derek Stepan. Carl Hagelin, J.T. Miller, and Mats Zuccarello are all players who could be cycled in and out to fill out the open spots on the wings. Why the Flyers’ defensemen need to adjust is due to the fact any number of combinations will be presented? The only fact that the Flyers have about the Rangers forwards are that Alain Vigneault will be doing everything in his power to get Rick Nash, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis to perform at their highest level. They could be paired with anyone, they could be put in any situation, in any role and for any amount of time if it means that they can play at the highest level. Ideally, Vigneault would like to put all three of them on a line together as Tortarella did with Richards, Nash and Gaborik over the last two seasons. But these players are all either streaky or have not quite found where they fit into Vigneault’s system yet, so the Flyers have no idea what lines the Rangers will throw at them.
How Craig Berube will adjust his defense has yet to be seen. Sacrificing the offense of Kimmo Timonen and only matching him up against whomever is hot for the Rangers could happen, or he could form a shut down pair with Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann as Peter Laviolette did two years ago to handle Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. Either of these two scenarios require that Luke Schenn, Mark Streit, and Andrew MacDonald all step up. If Timonen is used primarily as a defensive player, Streit and MacDonald would be leaned heavily upon for offense. If Coburn and Grossman are paired together, Schenn would most likely be moved up to play with Timonen, where he would have to play flawlessly, for he wouldn’t have the speedy MacDonald to help him out. These adjustments will all be considered, possibly played out, and will evolve as the series progresses.
With Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal as three of a teams’ six defenders, it wouldn’t seem that much could be said to these three defensemen other than ‘play well.’ While there is no question that these three versatile defensemen are some of the highest quality in the league, they will be faced to make a number of adjustments from game to game and within each game. This is due to the versatility of the Flyers’ offense.
When writers talk about the Flyers’ offense, the one statistic that is jammed down the fans’ throats is how the Flyers’ have seven 20-goal scorers. What is not mentioned in each of these statistics is that all seven of these players are finding success because they each are put into a situation where they can succeed. While not all of these situations are directly related to the opposition’s defense, the Rangers’ defense will have to make adjustments as they will face any of the Flyers’ four lines, each of which having proved to be successful in Craig Berube’s opportunistic system in their own way.
The line of Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Jakub Voracek has found success for two reasons. This line has a great mix of speed and physicality in its members and because of Claude Giroux. When this line is on the ice or when the Flyers’ first power play unit is on the ice, the ENTIRE offense runs through Claude Giroux. He always has the mobile Voracek zipping around the ice to either take the puck on his own or create lanes for Giroux, and he always has Hartnell in the slot to screen the goalie or take a quick one-timer. The line of Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and either Tye McGinn, Michael Raffl, or Vinny Lecavalier found success because this is a big, heavy hitting line that barrels into the oppositions defense, grinds them down until they gain a step with the puck, and just puts the puck on the net as quickly as possible, looking for a rebound. The third line will be discussed more in-depth later, but primarily play defense and generate offense in transition. Finally, the fourth line of Lecavalier, Adam Hall, and Zac Rinaldo, Michael Raffl, or Steve Downie finds success because Lecavalier is being matched up against other teams fourth lines, where this skill level is nowhere close to him in comparison.
These lines will push Girardi, McDonagh, and Staal to the limits. Expect Girardi and McDonagh to log 30 minutes each, every night, for the entire series. To combat these different lines and different offensive strategies, Girardi will be constantly clearing Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell out of the slot, and will be relied upon to throw his weight around in every situation, especially in puck battles where the Flyers seem to dominate other teams. McDonagh may end up shadowing Claude Giroux rather than Derek Stepan or Derek Brassard, which is exactly what Dan Bylsma had him do against Evgeni Malkin in the Olympics. All of these defensemen will have to be incredibly mobile against the Flyers’ bottom two lines, which will be playing in transition and will be physical, which is very different from playing defense against a set offense, which is what the Flyers’ top two lines will be trying to establish. And, when they think they have a break because the fourth lines are out, Lecavalier will be on the ice. Staal will have to do all of this by himself, because he will not be paired with a top-notch defensemen on the second line. McDonagh, Girardi and Staal will have to accomplish all of this, and provide clean zone break outs, and offense from the point. The Rangers’ defense will be pushed to their limits because they will have to play different defense agains each of the Flyers’ lines and they will have to continue to provide offense for the Rangers if they want to succeed.
Important Line for Each Team
To finish the series preview, I will outline one specific line on each team that will be required to go above and beyond its normal duties that their respective coaches demanded during the regular season. Because it is each teams’ defense that will be making most of the teams’ adjustments as the series plays out, the key lines discussed in this section are all offensive lines.
For the Flyers, the third line of Sean Couturier, Matt Read, and either Michael Raffl, Zac Rinaldo, or Jason Akeson will be key. This is the Flyers’ prime checking line that is night after night matched up against the other team’s top talent. Because the Rangers, unless they use the top line of Nash, Richards, and St. Louis, will most likely have a balanced attack with the superstars of Nash and St. Louis playing on the wing, outside of Sean Couturier’s kingdom, this line will have a different purpose in this series than they have had in past games. This line will be required to threaten offensively, from night to night. To overwhelm the Rangers’ top defenders and the very capable Henrik Lundqvist, this third line will have to be a threat. The Flyers cannot afford to give the Rangers’ top players rest when Giroux is off the ice; they must be attacking from every angle, at all times. I want to see another hat trick from Couturier, I want to see Matt Read taking shots whenever Couturier feeds him as they break out of the defensive zone, and I want to see Jason Akeson play on this line, for I think his slippery play-making ability could go along way towards giving his potential two line-mates every offensive opportunity they could have. Akeson is a point per game in his two NHL games; I want to see that continue as he helps the Flyers have an even more potent offense.
For the Rangers, I think their fourth line will be key. Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett, and either Dan Carcillo or J.T. Miller will be key to keeping the Flyers in check. This comes in a number of ways. The Flyers have found much success against the Penguins because every time they play them, Crosby and Malkin just become so incensed that they do not focus on their game. The Flyers will no doubt employ this strategy as they try to keep Nash, St. Louis, and Richards as ineffective as possible. What this line can do, especially if Dan Carcillo is in the lineup, is give this chatter right back to the Flyers. The Flyers, especially Hartnell, Simmonds, and the Schenn brothers, all have a tendency to get involved in the trash talking, and often can take some really dumb penalties. If Carcillo, Dorsett, and Boyle can draw these penalties WITHOUT taking any themselves, they will have done their team a great service. Defense will also be key for this line, especially if Lecavalier is on the fourth line. Boyle will have his work cut out for him in this scenario. And lastly, the Flyers defense will be struggling if they are simply pressured in their own zone. If they start to worry about being hit, which is something that all of the players on the Rangers’ fourth line can do, the Flyers will struggle to manage turnovers and could end up leaving Steve Mason out to dry, again.
Adjustments, adjustments, adjustments. Each teams’ defense must adjust and each team has an important line that must adjust its purpose. Which ever team recognizes the need for and makes the necessary adjustments first will take this series. Both goalies have been streaky this season, both teams have a great penalty kill, both teams have a pretty good power play, both teams have not been dominant at each other’s home stadium, both teams have the potential to sweep the other, and both teams could win the Stanley Cup. The winner of this series will certainly be poised for a deep, deep run. This will be a great series of hockey.