So after six games worth of win-one, lose-one back-and-forth hockey, the Rangers have one more opportunity to advance into the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Coming off their worst defeat of the post-season less than 24 hours earlier, the Rangers will host the Philadelphia Flyers tonight beginning at 7:00 PM at Madison Square Garden, series tied 3-3. A victory tonight and the Rangers will exhale, thank the fact that they fought so hard down the stretch of the season to earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and then quickly move on to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round Two. A Blueshirts defeat, and the team will skate into the off-season in a fog, examining how exactly they let this series slip away after controlling most of the play through five games and missing out on two chances to close the series out.
History will tell you that the Rangers are a perfect 5-0 in playoff Game Sevens at Madison Square Garden. Many of the current players wearing the Blueshirt were a part of the 2012 Rangers squad that eliminated the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals in a pair of 2-1 Game Seven victories at The Garden; and even more still were on last year's team which ousted the Capitals with a 5-0 seventh game victory down in D.C. That experience--coupled with the big-game experiences of veteran leaders like Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis--will go a long way tonight for the home team.
Perhaps the best thing the Rangers can hang their collective hats on today is that momentum has not been carried from game to game by either team in this series. The teams have alternated wins--the Rangers grabbing three one-game leads, the Flyers coming back to pull even three times--and each game has been more its own story rather than a continuation of the previous one. Certainly the Rangers have to hope that is the case in Game Seven tonight because what happened in Philadelphia on Tuesday evening was not pretty. After a strong first period in which they could not find a way to beat Flyers goalie Steve Mason, the Rangers played their worst period of the series in the second nearly getting run out of the Wells Fargo Center, before finally playing on more even terms in the third period.
While the Rangers will be most concerned about how they prepare and play tonight, they must also be aware that the Flyers are brimming with confidence. They consistently talk about how they have stared down adversity all season long after a brutal start to 2013-14, a coaching change, and the need for a late-season surge just in order to qualify for the post-season. The Flyers seem to thrive on this chip-on-the-shoulder mentality they have built, and now they are coming off their best game of the series by far, a contest in which they imposed their will at every single turn, besting the Rangers in every possible category.
Perhaps a major concern for the Rangers is that the sleeping giants of the Flyers offense have awoken. After a three-point game Tuesday, Claude Giroux is now tied with St. Louis and Richards as the leading scorer in this series with six points in six games. Wayne Simmonds was an absolute monster Tuesday, scoring three goals, while playing a ferocious physical game throughout, capping by taking a ten-minute misconduct penalty after a scrum in the game's final minute--a clear parting shot to the Rangers that he wanted to create one more lasting memory for the Rangers heading into Game Seven.
Then there's Mason, as confident a goaltender as there is in the league, and clearly healthy again after starting this series on the sidelines with an unspecified injury. Mason has won two of his three starts in this series and has stopped 92 of 98 shots. He has played physically and aggressively, and with some flash, as well. However his lone loss came in his one start at The Garden--the Rangers 4-2 victory in Game Five, a contest he did not look nearly as confident playing, allowing three goals on only 21 shots.
The Rangers, of course, have Henrik Lundqvist on their side in goal. He is 3-1 all-time in four Game Sevens with a 1.00 goals against average and .963 save percentage, and is also 5-0 with a microscopic 0.98 GAA, two shutouts, and .966 save percentage in his last five playoff elimination games at The Garden. With little help in front of him, Lundqvist allowed four goals on 23 shots Tuesday before being removed in favor of Cam Talbot at the start of the third period. He has not been asked to steal a game for the Rangers yet in this series, but certainly this Game Seven would seem to be made for him to rise up and grab star billing.
After some extremely sloppy defensive zone coverage and poor execution--most notably a pair of turnovers by Dan Girardi that led directly to the Flyers first two goals on Tuesday--the Rangers must return to playing like they did through the first five games of this series when they had surrendered just ten goals--one into an empty net.
Special teams has kept the Flyers in this series, and it can be argued, has now put them in position to knock the Rangers out of the playoffs. Philly is second among all playoff teams with a 31.6 percent success rate on the power play, with six goals in 19 opportunities. Last night they were 2-for-3, and they now have at least one power play goal in each of the last three games of this series. The Flyers have just crushed the Rangers power play, as well, killing off 20 consecutive Blueshirt man advantages heading into Game Seven. Overall the Rangers are just 3-for-28 in the series on the power play, with two of those goals coming in the first game of the series.
While the Rangers by and large have been the better team at even strength--including in the opening period last night when their speed and forecheck made Philly look like the Keystone Cops much of the first 20 minutes--the Flyers have dominated the special teams battle, and goaltending has been a wash to this point in the series. Both teams know they will need to be better in all areas of their respective games tonight.
Game Seven. Win or go home. Game On!