THE PARALLELS between these teams are interesting. Both had to break in new coaches. Both did face-plants to start the season. Both staged impressive rallies to set up their first postseason meeting in 17 years. Every generation, by the way, should have at least one Flyers-Rangers playoff series.
The usual elements apply here for playoff success: quality special teams, smart line changes, defensive responsibility.
Both have balanced scoring, though the Flyers have a little more depth. Give the Rangers a slight edge along the blue line and in net. Not to diminish the talents of Steve Mason, but I don't think Ray Emery is a steep dropoff. Emery has played a lot in the last few weeks, which will serve him well.
As much fun as the next 2 weeks promise to be, the only thing better would be a Game 7. If it does come to that, it'd be hard to pick against Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in his building.
Rangers in 7
THE YEAR was 1997. The New York Rangers, with Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky, had pushed their way through two rounds of playoffs to reach the Eastern Conference finals against the Eric Lindros-led Flyers. Along the way, though, their fleet, puck-carrying defenseman, Brian Leetch, had banged his right shoulder a bit, or so it was rumored, and when Trent Klatt caught him with a hard check in the corner late in Game 2 of that series, the rumor died, as did the Rangers' chance to win that series.
Leetch's right wrist was nearly inoperable, his offense negated by at least that, and probably a combo platter of the pre-existing, um, rumor. The Rangers held on for a 5-4 victory in Game 2, but lost the next three games to the younger, healthier Flyers.
It's the last time the teams met in a playoff series until tonight's Game 1 at Madison Square Garden. And wouldn't you know, the key to the Rangers' success again could trace to the suspect left shoulder of their best and most offensively talented defenseman and how it holds up in what is likely to be a grinding, grueling series.
I'm going to assume it does. This round anyway. That's why I'm picking the Rangers, because Ryan McDonagh and home ice provide the sliver of difference between teams that are deep, committed, and coached well.
Rangers in 7
EVEN IF the Flyers were whole and not hexed, picking them to win a playoff series would be an exercise in optimism.
But, with starting goalie Steve Mason injured and gagged, they are far from whole.
With eight losses in their last eight trips to Madison Square Garden, they certainly seem hexed.
And with their recent spate of late collapses, they are a bad bet to win four games against any good team.
The Rangers are a good team.
Rangers in 7
THE GOALIE thing has everyone's attention, as it should. Steve Mason is a better option than Ray Emery - it goes without saying. What you have to decide is whether Mason's absence from at least the start of the series with an annoyingly unspecified upper-body injury will be fatal.
I don't think it will be. Truthfully, there isn't a lot to choose between the teams. The Rangers have the best defenseman in the series (Ryan McDonagh) and they have the best goaltender in the series (Henrik Lundqvist). The Flyers have the more potent offense and the more balanced offense, with their seven 20-goal scorers. Quietly, given the scoring that Mark Streit has contributed in the last couple of weeks and given the addition near the trade deadline of Andrew MacDonald (and the stabilizing effect he has had on everything, but particularly Luke Schenn), the Flyers might have the deeper overall defense.
First-round series in this sport are always a crapshoot, which is why we like them so much. That said, my history in picking this round is decidedly mediocre. With that, if you think it is all about the goalies and only about the goalies, the series is over before it starts. But if the whole balance thing that the Flyers have been demonstrating all season means anything, there is a whole lot more going on here than that.
Flyers in 7
ADMITTEDLY, I wasn't a believer in October - not after a training camp that seemed as lifeless as the end of the 2012-13 lockout season. Check the Daily News archives for proof: I did not pick the Flyers to make the playoffs.
Yes, I did predict Peter Laviolette would be fired - but who could have guessed it would happen in the manner it did? Three games into the season?! The details are still baffling.
And to be completely honest, by the time the holiday season rolled around, I didn't even envision the regular season to play out as well for the Flyers as it did.
Somewhere along the line - maybe on that post-Christmas road swing out West that included an overtime win in New Jersey on the way back? - this Flyers team made a believer out of me.
There is just something about the chemistry, the makeup of this dressing room that gives me a different feeling - one that screams the Flyers have a deep Stanley Cup playoff run in front of them. Perhaps, it is the franchise record 11 third-period comebacks. Or the tough-love coach in Craig Berube that has the once-fragile Flyers as confident as they've been since 2010.
This series will be won or lost on the boards - not in net.
That is why I'm not convinced Ray Emery being in net for Game 1 needs to alter my outlook for the Flyers. His numbers this season aren't pretty (9-12-2, .903 save percentage and 2.96 goals against average) but his quality of competition, even since the Olympic break, has been off the charts. He has faced San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Boston since Feb. 27. The quickness Emery lacks in net, he may make up for it in experience - having led Ottawa to the Stanley Cup final in 2007.
I know the Flyers have not won at Madison Square Garden since Feb. 20, 2011 - a span of eight straight losses. With different coaches, different players, heck, even different seats after a $1 billion renovation, how much does that statistic mean? The Flyers say it isn't something they're thinking about.
Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh is not 100 percent after a left-shoulder injury. Henrik Lundqvist, who has owned the Flyers, hasn't done a whole heck of a lot in the playoffs and is coming off his worst regular season since 2008-09.
The Flyers have a significantly more potent offense, more wins than the Rangers since Nov. 7, and closed the regular season with the toughest 30-day schedule in the NHL. That has to count for something.
I believe these teams are much more evenly matched than a losing streak at the Garden would explain. This team fooled me - and a lot of others - once this season. Not again.