Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Flyers enter unfamiliar territory in playoff series with Rangers

Beginning Thursday, the Philadelphia Flyers will open up their 2014 postseason at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.

That, in and of itself, isn't so rare precious. The clubs have met 10 times previously in the race for the Stanley Cup, although not since the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals, a five-game triumph for the Orange and Black which served as a torch passing from Mark Messier to Eric Lindros.

What makes this new territory for Craig Berube and his team, is that this year marks the first time since 1982 that the Blueshirts will enjoy home-ice advantage over their southern neighbors, and only the second time in 40 years that the Manhattanites have earned that luxury.

Not that it really mattered to the Flyers, who were tripped up three times prior by the Rangers despite the series kicking off in the loud confines of the Spectrum. Under Fred Shero in 1979, Herb Brooks in 1983 and Ted Sator in 1986, the Rangers pulled off stunning upsets, the first in a five-game Stanley Cup quarterfinal and the last two coming in the best-of-five Patrick Division semifinals.

Overall, Philadelphia has won six of its previous 10 playoff matchups with New York, including each of the last three dating back to the 1987 Patrick Division semis, in the first season the NHL extended the best-of-seven format to all four rounds.

To kick off this preview in earnest, here are brief recaps of every previous playoff series between the two storied franchises.

1974 Stanley Cup Semifinals: Standing in the way of their first trip to the final round, the New York Rangers presented a unique challenge to Fred Shero's club. The Flyers, who won the East Division and therefore held home-ice advantage against the third-place team in the East, dropped all three games at Madison Square Garden and had to win all four in the Spectrum to advance -- which they did. It came at great cost, as Barry Ashbee was forced to retire after taking a Dale Rolfe slapshot to the eye. Gary Dornhoefer scored the eventual series winner near the midway point of the third period in Game 7, and the Flyers held on after a Pete Stemkowski goal to reach the Finals against the Bruins.

This series marked the first and only time the clubs participated in a Game 7, and the first of only two postseason meetings where the series was decided in a terminal contest.

1979 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals: Subplots abounded. Fred Shero, who stepped down as Flyers head coach after seven years in the Summer of 1978, did a 180 turn and accepted the same post with the rival Rangers days later. Under Bob McCammon and Pat Quinn, the Orange and Black stumbled to a 40-25-15 record, with Shero's Blueshirts only four points behind. Bernie Parent was officially retired after a stick to the eye in a February home game against the Rangers caused permanent damage to his vision.

Ken Linseman won Game 1 at the Spectrum after only 44 seconds in overtime, but from there it was all New York. The Rangers outclassed and outscored the Flyers by a 26-5 count in winning the final four contests, dominating at even strength and seeing John Davidson outduel both rookie sensation Robbie Moore and long-time-backup-made-starter Wayne Stephenson.

1980 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals: Thanks to that record 35-game unbeaten streak, Quinn's Flyers finished atop the NHL with 116 points and gained home-ice advantage for all four rounds of the new playoff structure as Shero's Rangers finished 30 points distant. Revenge was clearly on Philadelphia's mind. Rookie goaltender Pete Peeters and a revamped defense overtook Davidson and the Rangers, limiting them to seven goals over the five-game series.

1982 Patrick Division Semifinals: Under yet another new playoff seeding procedure, the top four teams in each of four divisions qualified for the playoffs, in a 1-4, 2-3 structure with the first round best-of-five and the remaining three rounds best-of-seven. Quinn was fired and McCammon was re-hired, while Reggie Leach was released shortly before the end of the season and a patchwork Philly defense allowed a then-record 313 goals.

For the first time, the Rangers boasted home-ice advantage and didn't reap the rewards. Peeters made 35 saves and newly-acquired Darryl Sittler tallied twice in a series-opening 4-1 win at MSG. It was all downhill for the Cooperall-clad Flyers against Herb Brooks and his up-tempo playing style. In Game 2, little known Mikko Leinonen set a still-standing NHL record by picking up six assists in a 7-3 Blueshirts triumph. In Game 3, the hosts went up 3-0 after one period but fumbled it away into a 4-3 defeat thanks to Cam Connor's goal with 1:09 left in regulation, and in the deciding Game 4, a rally from 6-2 down in the third period fell short in a 7-5 season-ending loss.

1983 Patrick Division Semifinals: Brooks and the Rangers laid in the weeds during the regular season, finishing in fourth place at .500 and dropping four of the seven regular-season meetings with the Flyers, who shocked many by dethroning the three-time defending Cup champion Islanders and winning the division title with 49 victories and 106 points.

Following a mid-March 8-2 loss at the Garden, McCammon lamented that: "No one hit their Smurfs all night,” and the Rangers used that as prime bulletin-board material. From the drop of the puck, Brooks' club zoomed around the opposing defense, and eventually came up with a shocking three-game sweep by a score of 18-9, including a 9-3 debacle in Manhattan to complete the series. “Still the worst I’ve ever felt,” Bobby Clarke, the Flyers’ captain, said years later. "Nobody played worth a damn." The defeat was so humiliating and total that the Flyers couldn't even win the fights.

1985 Patrick Division Semifinals: An injury-riddled Rangers club dumped Brooks and finished a whopping 51 points behind the NHL-leading Flyers, playing for rookie head coach Mike Keenan. Despite Philadelphia winning all seven meetings in the regular season, its three-game sweep was closer than it should have been, with two one-goal games and a two-goal difference. Tim Kerr etched his name into the league record books with four straight scores in a span of 8:16 during the second period of the series-clinching 6-5 victory. It marked the first time since 1981 the club advanced beyond the opening round, en route to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since '80.

1986 Patrick Division Semifinals: More subplots. Former Flyers assistant Ted Sator left to take the head coaching slot with the Rangers. The Flyers won the division again, but the emotional and physical strains of having to fend off the Capitals and put the death of Pelle Lindbergh behind them was starting to show. New York lost six of seven regular-season games this time around, but no matter.

Sator's defensive system and the frenzied goaltending of John Vanbiesbrouck carried the day. The Flyers were reduced to gooning it up and pressuring the crease, and the Rangers refused to be rattled, taking advantage of their chances and winning twice in the Spectrum, including a 5-2 decision in Game 5 which saw Vanbiesbrouck make the save of his young career on a screaming slapper by Brad McCrimmon in the final minutes of a one-goal game. Vanbiesbrouck was controversially awarded the Vezina over Bob Froese, who clearly outperformed him in the regular season.

1987 Patrick Division Semifinals: Chaos and mayhem continues. Froese was dealt to the Rangers a week before Christmas for Kjell Samuelsson, and won three starts against his former team through the end of the season. Long-time Flyers hater Phil Esposito was installed as both head coach and GM on Broadway. Fiery rookie Ron Hextall faced his baptism by fire in the Garden with voluminous chants of his last name.

Hextall responded with the first two playoff shutouts of his career, both in New York, shook off taunting from the opposing bench in a testy Game 4 loss, while his teammates chased Vanbiesbrouck in routs during Game 2 (8-3) and the clinching Game 6 (5-0). Rick Tocchet came up with his biggest playoff performance to date, leading the way with five goals, while Kerr added three.

1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals: The first and only four-game sweep between the clubs saw the upstart Flyers, five years out of the playoff picture, knock off the defending Stanley Cup champions who upset top-seeded Quebec in the first round. Every game featured a different hero: Eric Desjardins with the OT winner early in Game 1, Kevin Haller with the OT winner early in Game 2, Kevin Dineen with two goals in Game 3 and Karl Dykhuis with his first two NHL playoff goals in Game 4.

Though the Rangers were clearly not the same team as their '94 model and without head coach Mike Keenan, it was sweeter than sweet to deny New York a chance to advance by preventing even one victory. Philly outscored the Rangers 18-9 in the series, allowing fewer goals by the opposition in each contest.

1997 Eastern Conference Finals: Not even the presence of five ex-Edmonton Oilers, including Messier and Wayne Gretzky, could help the Rangers overcome the Legion of Doom and three other solid lines. The Flyers' top line accounted for 20 points in a five-game set, while Rod Brind'Amour began to assert himself as a secondary scoring threat with four goals and two assists.

Terry Murray's club advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals for the seventh time in franchise history in front of a boisterous home crowd on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.

The 2013-14 Season

Heading into Thursday's opener at the renovated World's Most Famous Arena, the New York Rangers have won eight straight regular-season games as the host against the Philadelphia Flyers, dating back to a 4-2 loss on home ice on February 20, 2011.

That's the longest winless/losing string for the Flyers since a 12-game run (0-11-1) from January 14, 1990 through February 3, 1993. One thing in Philly's favor, is a 10-10 all-time playoff record at MSG, which includes five straight road wins going back to Game 6 of the Patrick semis on April 16, 1987 and seven victories in their last eight tries at the arena situated above Penn Station.  

Neither Steve Mason nor Ray Emery have faced the Rangers previously in the postseason, and the same holds true for Henrik Lundqvist and the Flyers. Mason's one and only foray beyond the regular season was a four-game sweep against the Detroit Red Wings in his rookie season of 2009. Emery holds a 20-15 lifetime mark, 2.57 goals-against average and three whitewashes all-time, but was 2-3 for Anaheim three years ago in a six-game, first-round loss to Nashville.

Lundqvist sports a 30-37 record, 2.28 GAA and eight shutouts over seven appearances in the postseason. His backup for most of the year, Cam Talbot, has yet to appear in an NHL playoff contest

Brad Richards is far and away the leading playoff scorer for the Rangers, having picked up 78 points (28G, 50A) in 93 appearances for the Lightning, Stars and Rangers, which includes a Stanley Cup in 2004. Martin St. Louis places second, having compiled 68 points (33G, 35A) in 63 games, all for Tampa Bay -- including 10 goals and 10 assists three years ago as the Bolts advanced to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston.

No surprise here, but Claude Giroux tops the Flyers' list of playoff scoring, totaling 55 points (21G, 34A) in 50 games. Placing second, St. Louis' and Richards' former teammate Vinny Lecavalier, who picked up 52 points (24G, 28A) in 63 appearances for Tampa.

One Final Word 

For what it's worth, the following is a list of players on both teams who were alive (but not necessarily aware of) the last time the Rangers toppled the Flyers 28 years ago:

Adam Hall, Scott Hartnell, Jay Rosehill, Braydon Coburn, Hal Gill, Nicklas Grossmann, Mark Streit, Kimmo Timonen and Emery. Brian Boyle, Dan Carcillo, Dominic Moore, Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Raphael Diaz, Kevin Klein, Dan Girardi, Henrik Lundqvist.
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