By Matt Calamia
The last time the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers squared off in the postseason was in 1997, when the Rangers were led by Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Wayne Gretzky and Mike Richter, while the Flyers lineup featured Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Ron Hextall.
Nearly 17 years after that Eastern Conference Finals matchup, the two teams open another series Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s an exciting time of year,” defenseman Dan Girardi said after the team’s practice. “We worked all year to get ourselves home-ice advantage. Hopefully we’ll use that to our advantage.”
Of the eight opening-round series, it could be argued the Rangers and Flyers are the two most evenly-matched squads. They split their four-game season series, with the home team winning all four games. For further evidence, the Rangers edged the Flyers, 10-8, in goals over the four games.
“They’re a team we’re familiar with,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “We’ve had some great games with them in the past. They’re a tough team. For a first-round matchup, it’s not too hard to get excited for.”
“It was a pretty even series in the season,” Girardi added. “They have a good power play, really skilled forwards, solid D and a good goalie, so we’re going to have our hands full. We’re going to have to work hard for every inch out there.”
Pundits have said this series should be the chippiest and possibly nastiest of any series in the opening round, thanks to a rivalry dating back to the Flyers’ inception in the late 1960s.
The team’s combined for 193 penalty minutes, including four fights and a handful of 10-minute misconducts throughout the season series, including some late-game antics at the Garden on Jan. 12, a 4-1 Rangers win that saw John Moore and Brayden Schenn drop the gloves, as well as Daniel Carcillo and Brian Boyle for the Rangers and Luke Schenn for the Flyers each given misconducts.
“It’s probably a little different, but the fans have been around a lot longer than these players have been against each other, so fans are used to seeing the Rangers jersey and the Flyers jersey,” Richards said on facing a rival in the postseason. “It’s still Philly. It’s close. It’s a division rival … when you’re this close on a map and as close as we are to the city of Philly, it’s going to add a little extra.”
While Girardi, Staal and Richards have been around for a few seasons, Martin St. Louis has just one game experience in the battle between two teams about 90 miles apart. That lack of first-hand experience in the game doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what Rangers-Flyers means.
“I’m aware of the rivalry between the two teams,” St. Louis stated after practice. “I’ve watched it from a distance before, now I’m going to be right in the middle of it. It’s exciting.”