Leading into Game 1 tonight between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, here’s a look at four under-the-radar Rangers – ok, well, three players and one inanimate object – that the Flyers will have to keep in check in order to ensure success in the series.
You won’t see star goalie Henrik Lundqvist or star winger Rick Nash on this list because it’s fairly obvious that the Flyers will have to get in Lundqvist’s face in the crease and not let Nash take over on the offensive end.
Winger Mats Zuccarello
Take a wild guess at who led the Rangers in points over the course of the regular season. You would have never guessed the diminutive Norwegian winger, would you?
Zuccarello’s 59 points – 19 goals and 40 assists – in 77 games paced a balanced Rangers attack during the regular season.
He’s a versatile player that can play on almost any line and find success. He’s a shifty puck handler with a knack for setting up his teammates from his wing position.
Zuccarello sees regular time on both of the Rangers’ special team units. His four power-play goals tied him for third on a Rangers team that finished with a middle-of-the-pack power play but was much more dangerous before a late-season slump. He also had one of the Rangers’ 10 shorthanded goals, third-most in the league. That penalty kill finished as the fourth-best penalty kill in the NHL.
If you’re looking for a familiar comparable, think Flyers winger Matt Read, except that Read is more of a pure scorer whereas Zuccarello is more of a facilitator. Both can play on any line and both can play well at either end of the ice.
Zuccarello is expected to be on the Rangers’ second line with fellow winger Benoit Puliot and center Derick Brassard.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh
You may remember McDonagh from the Sochi Olympic tournament where he was arguably the Americans’ best defenseman.
He hasn’t been arguably the Rangers’ best defenseman all year long. He’s without a doubt been the Rangers’ best defenseman all year long. And he won’t be under-the-radar to Flyers fans for long.
The 24-year-old, two-way defenseman has enjoyed a breakout season on the Rangers’ top defensive pairing alongside Dan Girardi. He’s been tasked with shutting down the opposition’s best player night in and night out and has excelled. You may remember the last meeting between the Flyers and Rangers when he smothered Claude Giroux the entire night and helped force Giroux into one of his worst games of the season.
McDonagh also scored 14 goals and posted 29 assists during the regular season so he’s more than capable of getting the job done at both ends of the ice.
But keeping McDonagh in check isn’t about him putting up offensive numbers in this series. It’s about keeping him away from Giroux as much as possible.
It will be tough to do at MSG since the Rangers get the last change, but Flyers head coach Craig Berube has to play the matchup game as much as he can to keep Giroux away from McDonagh.
Those two going at one another might be the key matchup of the series.
One thing to remember is McDonagh missed recent games with a shoulder injury so the Flyers should target him physically and find out if he really is 100 percent.
Winger Marty St. Louis
Really? St. Louis is an under-the-radar player?
For his career, not at all. He’s s star player. There are a multitude of reasons he has accolades such as a Hart Trophy for league MVP, two Art Ross Trophies for most points in a season and a Stanley Cup.
All those came when he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning prior to this season’s trade deadline.
Since coming to the Rangers at the trade deadline in exchange for then-Ranger captain Ryan Callahan and draft picks, St. Louis has been underwhelming in 19 games with the Blueshirts. In those 19 games, St. Louis has just a single goal and seven assists.
But don’t sleep on St. Louis come playoff time.
For his playoff career, he’s at an over a point-per-game clip with 68 points – 33 goals and 35 assists – in 63 career playoff games.
This is the time of year where veteran guys like St. Louis shine.
At 38-years-old, he’s still incredibly dangerous and even more so on the Rangers’ top line with Nash and Derek Stepan.
Forget about his numbers during the regular season with the Rangers. It’s a brand new slate now.
Madison Square Garden’s Ice
Madison Square Garden is known as “The World’s Most Famous Arena” for a ton of reasons.
Assuredly, one of those reasons is not its ice surface.
The Garden is notorious around the NHL for having one of the league’s worst ice surfaces. It’s known to wear down rather quickly and create awful puck bounces and overall sloppy play.
And that’s even with the crazy, billion-dollar renovations that have been done there.
New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur ripped the Garden’s ice surface during the 2012 Eastern Conference Final, saying it wasn’t very good. He also complained about the boards and the glass at MSG.
The Garden’s ice is what it is. It can’t be changed.
The Flyers have to be prepared for those kooky puck bounces and the effects they can cause. That means there will be an onus on better passing and crisp puck movement.
The time for talking ends in just a few hours. Puck drops at 7 p.m. tonight on CSN. It will also be on CNBC for those of you outside the local Philly viewing area.