By Matt Calamia
It’s been five days for the Rangers and four days for the Flyers since their respective regular seasons came to a close last week, and finally the long-awaited first-round playoff series begins tonight at Madison Square Garden.
After being limited in practice Tuesday and Wednesday — though yesterday was more a decision of the coaching staff than anything – Derick Brassard took part in the team’s morning skate at the Garden this morning, and will be ready to go when the puck drops at 7 pm.
Rookie forward Jesper Fast did not skate this morning with his teammates due to what head coach Alain Vigneault called a “maintenance morning,” and said Daniel Carcillo would not be replacing him in the lineup. Forward J.T. Miller is also expected to be a healthy scratch tonight after he was recalled from Hartford earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Flyers head coach Craig Berube said goaltender Steve Mason was feeling better than he did yesterday, and will join the team tomorrow in New York City. Berube said he was unsure if Mason would be healthy enough to play in Game 2. Ray Emery will start in net tonight.
The buzzword around both locker rooms this morning was discipline and the importance of it for both teams, especially between the whistles.
“You want to stay away [from retaliatory penalties],” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “Especially with their power play. They can move around pretty well and they have a lot of guys who can finish on the power play, so we have to be smart.”
The Flyers possessed the eighth-best power play in the NHL in the regular season, though they actually had the best road power play at 25.2 percent. The Rangers did a good job of neutralizing the Flyers with the man-advantage, allowing just two goals over four games.
“It seems like that first round, the team that can keep their composure the most, play whistle to whistle and do things that are less reactive and just kind of calm … usually helps them a lot more,” Brad Richards said.
The same was said inside the Flyers’ locker room after their morning skate at MSG. Vetern Vinny Lecavalier said the Flyers must stick to their physical game, but be smart about it and not give the Blueshirts too many chances on the power play.
“Obviously you want to play hard … and be physical and hit them, but you don’t want to be in the box the whole game,” Lecavalier told reporters. “We have great penalty killing. Special teams are important. You want to make sure you play disciplined, and when you have the chance to be on the power play, you try and get some goals there.”
It’s no secret there is little love lost between these two teams that are separated by about 90 miles. Flyers captain Claude Giroux said those sentiments just make for better hockey, especially in the postseason.
“We respect each other as [people] but coming to hockey, it’s a different story,” Giroux said. “Just go out there and play the game. The more [hatred] there is between the players, I think that’s when the series is even better.”
The Rangers have three players on their roster who have Stanley Cup rings to their names, two of which are Richards and Martin St. Louis, who won their Cups together in Tampa Bay in 2004.
Having that veteran leadership from two players who know what it takes to win in the playoffs has been beneficial for Vigneault and the entire lineup.
“Without a doubt those two players have been sharing their experience with our group,” Vigneault said. “The both know the momentums you can get during a game and during a series, and without a doubt they’re going to be big contributors here as we move forward.”
Lecavalier knows both St. Louis and Richards very well, as he too was part of that 2004 Lightning team as well. Up until last season, he and St. Louis were teammates in Tampa Bay, and he said his relationship with Richards dates back two decades, making this series even more special.
“They’re guys we’ll definitely have to watch,” said Lecavalier. “They’re two clutch ,really good players.
“I’ve known them for a long time,” Lecavalier added. “We go back, with Brad, back to 1994 playing in high school, then juniors, then the NHL, so obviously we’ve known each other for a long time. It’s going to be fun to play against them.”