The Rangers find themselves with a prime opportunity to put the Flyers on the brink of playoff extinction if they can find a way to win another road game at the Wells Fargo Center Friday night. After beating the Flyers 4-1 down in Philly in Game Three on Tuesday, the Rangers own a two games to one advantage in this best-of-seven first-round playoff series, and a win on the road Friday would place the Blueshirts one victory away from advancing to the second round.
However it's not that simple because the Flyers certainly have other plans, and will be expected to play a desperate game on Friday, looking to back up team captain Claude Giroux's prediction that this series will return to Madison Square Garden on Sunday all even two games apiece. As New York's Daniel Carcillo said on Thursday, the Rangers will have to look at Game Four as a must-win because that is most definitely how the Flyers are approaching it.
The Rangers played a strong road game to take the series lead with their win on Tuesday. Henrik Lundqvist, who has a 1.68 goals against average in this series, played his best game of the first three on Tuesday, stopping 31 of 32 shots to backstop the clutch victory. His teammates also found a way to block 28 shots in the game, including seven on a pair of Flyer power plays late in the second period. It was a different formula from how they won Game One, in which they possessed the puck more than the Flyers and used their speed to put Philly on their heels.
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault indicated Thursday he'd like to see his team get back to that style of play. He thought the Flyers had the puck far too much in Game Three, even though the Rangers never trailed after scoring twice early in the first period. Vigneault wants the Rangers to push the pace and not be sucked into the type of game the Flyers would prefer to play. He also wants his club to be more disciplined after seeing the Flyers skate on five power plays in Game Three, and the Rangers engage in far too many post-whistle skirmishes. That is not to the Rangers advantage, and Vigneault has let his players know that over and over again throughout this series.
Daniel Carcillo, for one, gave the Rangers a jolt of energy when inserted into the lineup Tuesday; but he certainly needs to play a smart game, while also looking to agitate the Flyers at every turn. It's a delicate balancing act and one that saw Carcillo land on both sides of in Game Three. He did an excellent job playing a gritty game, clearing Lundqvist's crease during play and after whistles, and he scored the fourth goal in the third period. However he also committed a pair of minor penalties, including an ill-advised roughing minor when he went after Giroux following a whistle and during a skirmish between Carl Hagelin and Jakub Voracek.
Marty St. Louis and Rick Nash have been consistent game-changers for the Rangers in this series. Both have recorded at least one point in each game, so far, with St. Louis leading the teams with five points (2-3-5) and Nash right behind with four (0-4-4). Both had a hand in the first two goals scored by the Rangers on Tuesday, helping quiet the raucous Wells Fargo Center crowd. True to who they are, though, it wasn;t just the top-end Blueshirts who paved the way to victory on Tuesday. While Lundqvist, Nash, and St. Louis all starred, Dan Girardi scored a huge goal in the second period, added an assist, and blocked five shots. Carcillo meanwhile scored his goal; and the fourth line played a hard-nosed efficient game all night long.
The Flyers are hoping that getting their No. 1 goaltender Steve Mason back in the starting lineup Friday will be a game-changer, and possibly a series-changer, in their favor. Ray Emery started the first three games of the series because Mason was not healthy enough to do so, though Mason did dress as the back up and did finish the game, playing a bit more than seven minutes in Game Three. Emery posted a 3.49 goals against average and .888 save percentage in his three starts, and much more will be expected of Mason, who is coming off a very solid season. The question, though, is how healthy is he? And how sharp will Mason be after nearly two weeks on the sidelines? Those answers will be forthcoming beginning around 7:00 PM Friday evening.
Offensively, three of Philly's six goals in the series have been scored by defensemen; and their forwards have struggled to find their way so far. Voracek did score a game-changing goal in the Flyers Game Two victory at The Garden, and Wayne Simmonds scored into an empty net in the same game, but Giroux (two assists, only two shots on goal through three games), Scott Hartnell (two assists, five shots on goal), Vinny Lecavalier (one assist, two shots), and the other top-end Flyers forwards have struggled to produce offensively. Third liners Sean Couturier and rookie Jason Akeson have been among Philly's best players to date in this series.
While the Rangers will look to play a speed game Friday, the Flyers will want to get the puck in behind the Rangers defensemen, take the body, and work the puck down low. They will also want to capitalize on the power play, something they failed to do on Tuesday. And if the Flyers can goad the Rangers into abandoning their vaunted disciplined approach, all the better for the home team.
Ryan McDonagh spoke about this series being a battle of the Rangers will against the Flyers will. If that's the case then whoever's will is strongest in Game Four will go a long way to deciding which way this series is headed after Friday night.