By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
NEW YORK RANGERS
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 45-31-6 (2nd place, Metropolitan)
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Washington 4-3 in conference quarterfinals, lost to Boston Ottawa 4-1 in conference semifinals
(SportsNetwork.com) - After losing in the second round of the playoffs to the Boston Bruins last spring, the New York Rangers felt it was time for a change.
The club let go of head coach John Tortorella shortly after that 4-1 series loss and replaced him with Alain Vigneault, formerly of the Vancouver Canucks. Of course, Tortorella wound up in Vancouver as Vigneault's replacement, but the coaching swap has so fair worked in New York's favor. While the Rangers have made the playoffs for the fourth straight spring, the Canucks are out of the postseason for the first time since 2008.
A few weeks into the season, however, it did not look good for Vigneault and the Blueshirts. The club was 3-7-0 through the first 10 games, a stretch that included a season-opening nine-game road trip, before slowly but surely finding its way under the new bench boss.
In the end, the Rangers claimed home-ice advantage in the opening round by finishing second to Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division and hopes to have plenty of hockey left in them this spring.
New York is a team built from the net out, as goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and the club's formidable defensive corps represent the strength of the club. Although, Vigneault is a more offensive-minded coach than Tortorella, the club's identity hasn't changed all that much with a new guy calling the shots.
The Rangers averaged 2.62 goals per game in Tortorella's last regular season with the club and posted 2.61 gpg under Vigneault in 2013-14. New York had the league's fourth-best defense both years, allowing 2.32 gpg this season and 2.25 during the lockout-shortened campaign of 2013.
Lundqvist had another solid campaign in New York and set club records for regular season wins and shutouts along the way. Although the 32-year-old Swede was 33-24-5 with a 2.36 goals against average and .920 save percentage it still was a down season by Lundqvist's lofty standards. His GAA was the highest its been since Lundqvist posted a 2.38 in 2009-10 and the netminder's save percentage was his worst effort since finishing the 2008-09 campaign at .916.
Although New York only has made it out of the second round once since Lundqvist took over the starting role in 2005-06, it's hardly been his fault. In 67 playoff games, Lundqvist has posted a 2.28 GAA and .920 save percentage.
One concern for New York heading into the opening round is the health of No. 1 defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who sat out the last five games of the regular season with a bruised left shoulder. Although McDonagh expects to play in Game 1, it will be interesting to see how his shoulder holds up against the postseason grind.
McDonagh led New York's blue line this season in goals (14), assists (29), plus-minus (plus-11), penalty minutes (36) and shots (177). He also led the club with an average ice time of 24 minutes, 59 seconds and finished fifth on the team's overall scoring list with 43 points.
Dan Girardi, McDonagh's skating partner on the top pairing, was second on the team in ice time (23:07) and added five goals and 19 assists to finish second among New York defensemen in both categories.
Marc Staal is another guy capable of eating up minutes for Vigneault while playing a two-way role. Staal is normally paired with Anton Stralman, while Raphael Diaz, Kevin Klein and John Moore provide further depth at the back.
Considering the club has Lundqvist in net and a deep blue line, it should come as no surprise New York was third in the league in penalty killing this season (85.3 percent). However, the power play was middle of the pack with an 18.5 percent success rare the placed the Rangers 15th out of 30 teams.
New York's forward group does not inspire as much confidence as its goaltending and defense, however, with Rick Nash and Brad Richards as the only 20-goal scorers on the team.
Nash had a team-best 26 goals this season but his point total (39) was tied for the lowest output of his career, matching another 39-point effort as a rookie with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002-03. Nash did miss considerable time earlier this season with a concussion and played in only 66 games.
Scoring was a problem for Nash in last spring's postseason, as he posted just one goal and four assists in 12 games for the Rangers. All told, he has two goals and six assists over 16 career playoff contests.
Richards won the Conn Smythe with Tampa Bay when it won the Stanley Cup in 2004, but he also has something to prove in the 2014 postseason after notching just one goal in 10 games last spring. He was eventually made a healthy scratch by Tortorella, who also coached Richards during the Cup run with the Lightning in 2004.
The 33-year-old Richards had 20 goals in 82 games this season and was third on the team in points with 51. Mats Zuccarello led the club with 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) and Derek Stepan was next with 57 points on 17 goals and 40 helpers.
New York could miss young forward Chris Kreider in this series. The speedy winger underwent surgery to his left hand in late March and expects to be sidelined for a month. Kreider had 17 goals and 20 assists through 66 games.
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 42-30-10 (3rd place, Metropolitan)
2013 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify
As team captain and his club's primary offensive weapon, Claude Giroux is the guy who gets most of the blame when the Flyers are struggling.
That was the case early in 2013-14, when Giroux went the first 15 games without a goal and his club scuffled right along with him. However, Philadelphia's on-ice leader guaranteed the Flyers would make the playoffs after a 1-7-0 start to the season, and he was the biggest reason that came true.
Shrugging off his slow start, Giroux was as hot as anybody in the latter stages of the campaign and ended the season with 28 goals and 86 points over 82 games. His point total was easily the best on the Flyers and also placed him third in the league at season's end.
The slow start also resulted in a coaching change as Craig Berube was named to replace the fired Peter Laviolette after an 0-3 start. Berube, a former enforcer for the Flyers and several other NHL teams, could wind up a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy for his work as a rookie head coach in 2013-14.
The Flyers improved defensively under Berube and hope to carry their new-found discipline into this postseason. Philadelphia allowed 2.90 gpg when it missed the playoffs during the lockout-shortened season of 2013, but dropped that number to 2.77 this year.
Steve Mason was a big reason for the defensive improvement as the goaltender turned in a solid campaign in his first full season with the Flyers. Mason, who was acquired from Columbus at the 2013 trade deadline, went 33-18-7 with a 2.50 GAA and .917 save percentage. However, this will be just the second postseason run for Mason, who went 0-4 for Columbus when it was swept by Detroit in the opening round back in 2009.
Mason suffered an upper-body injury in the final week of the season, but expects to be ready for Game 1. Ray Emery, who was 9-12-2 with a 2.96 GAA as a backup this season, will get the call if Mason can't go in the series opener.
While Giroux is clearly the top guy on offense, the Flyers did boast seven forwards with 20 or more goals this season and one of them, Vincent Lecavalier, ended the season as the club's fourth-line centerman.
Wayne Simmonds, a potent presence in front of the net, led Philadelphia this season with 29 goals -- 15 of them coming on the power play. The Flyers had the eighth-best power play in the NHL this season, scoring 19.7 percent of the time.
Jakub Voracek is Philly's most dynamic forward outside of Giroux and he finished second to his linemate with 62 points (23g, 39a) in 2013-14. Matt Read added 22 goals, while Scott Hartnell and Brayden Schenn joined Lecavalier with 20 goals apiece.
Sean Couturier only had 13 goals in 82 games, but the 21-year-old centerman is quickly becoming one of the league's most promising defensive forwards. Expect Berube to match Couturier's line against New York's best scorers whenever he can.
While Philadelphia clearly has a more impressive group of forwards than the Rangers, the Flyers lag way behind New York in terms of defensive depth.
Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn make up a solid first pairing for the Flyers, The former defenseman provides excellent puck-moving ability and smart play from the back end, while Coburn uses size and skating to play a shutdown role.
In what could be his final playoff run, the 39-year-old Timonen is a steadying influence on the power play and is coming off a 35-point season that saw him post six goals and 29 assists. Coburn, who led the team in ice time (22:26), added five goals and 12 assists.
Former New York Islanders captain Mark Streit was the club's best offensive defenseman in 2013-14, posting 10 goals and 34 assists. Streit is usually paired with shot-blocking expert Nicklas Grossmann, who added one goal and 13 assists in 78 games this season.
Andrew MacDonald, who came over from the Islanders at the trade deadline, has helped improve Philadelphia's depth at the back end. He had four assists in a 19-game run with the Flyers and has combined with Luke Schenn to form the club's third pairing.
Although the Flyers and Rangers have been divisional rivals for decades, this marks the first playoff meeting between the clubs since 1997 when Philadelphia downed New York in five games for the Eastern Conference title.
Overall, Philadelphia has won six of the 10 playoff series between the franchises and has claimed three straight and four of the past five encounters.
The Flyers and Rangers split four meetings in 2013-14, with each team winning twice at its home arena. New York's home-ice advantage could loom large in this series, as the Blueshirts have claimed eight in a row at home against the Flyers, who last won at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 2011.
Giroux only managed two assists in the four meetings with the Rangers this season and that's certainly not a good sign for Philadelphia. Read and Streit were the best offensive players for the Flyers in the season series, posting one goal and two assists apiece.
Meanwhile, New York's best weapon against the Flyers this season was Kreider, who had two goals and two assists in three games against Philly but does not expect to play in this set. Richards had one goal and two assists over four games, while Nash had a goal and an assist in three outings.
The starting goaltenders had strikingly similar numbers in the 2013-14 series, with Lundqvist going 2-1-0 with a 2.03 GAA and Mason posting a 2-0-1 mark and a 2.01 GAA.
This is shaping up to be a classic battle of offense vs. defense. New York's vaunted blueliners should be able to combine with Lundqvist to make scoring a difficult task for Giroux and the Flyers forwards. The Rangers hold the key to slowing down Philadelphia's offensive attack when it needs to and that should be just enough to get New York into the second round.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Rangers in 7
04/15 12:05:16 ET