Getting to know the enemy: Four under-the-radar Rangers the Flyers have to keep in check

Getting to know the enemy: Four under-the-radar Rangers the Flyers have to keep in check

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.

Odubel Herrera flips Phillies into winners over Tigers before big trip to Wrigley Field

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Odubel Herrera flips Phillies into winners over Tigers before big trip to Wrigley Field

BOX SCORE

DETROIT — At least Odubel Herrera was honest about it.

“I didn’t expect to hit it that far,” he said with a big grin on his face late Wednesday afternoon.

A couple of hours earlier, Herrera helped key an 8-5 Phillies’ win over the Detroit Tigers with a towering home run into the right-field seats against Anibal Sanchez (see Instant Replay).

Herrera unloaded on the hanging slider and finished with his bat high.

As the bat reached its apex, Herrera didn’t just let it go. He flipped it in the air as if to say, ‘Uh-ah, I crushed that one.’ In the annals of bat flips, it wasn’t quite Jose Bautista quality, but it wasn’t far off. The flip was so dramatic that Herrera admitted after the game that he would not have been surprised if a Tigers pitcher had retaliated and stuck a pitch in his ribs later in the game.

Retribution never came. And Herrera left Detroit with a smile on his face and yet another big day for the Phillies. He is leading the club with a .327 batting average and his .440 on-base percentage is second-best in baseball.

Herrera's big home run helped make a winner out of Aaron Nola and the Phillies on a day when they really needed a win. After all, they had lost four of their previous five and are headed into the den of baseball’s best team, the Chicago Cubs, on Friday.

“For me, it was a must-win,” said manager Pete Mackanin, whose club is 26-21. “We’d lost four of five and I felt like we needed to come out of here with a win.

“The guys battled the whole game. To me it looked like they played like they had to win this game, which was nice to see. It looked like they played knowing we had to win. They were grinding and coming up with hits. Call it what you want, it was just the feeling I got.

“I’m not going to say I’m anxious to see the Cubs; they’re a hell of a team. But I’m hopeful we can take two out of three.”

The Tigers are one of baseball’s best hitting teams.

The Phillies are one of the worst. They entered the day scoring just 3.2 runs per game.

But on this day, the Phillies out-hit the Tigers, 12-10, to salvage one game in the series.

Nola went six innings, allowed four runs, a walk and struck out six. He left with a 7-4 lead. Things got hairy in the seventh, but Hector Neris cleaned up things for David Hernandez, and Jeanmar Gomez registered his majors-leading 17th save.

In between, Peter Bourjos had a couple of big hits, including his first homer of the season. Andres Blanco started at second over Cesar Hernandez and had a couple of big hits, as well. Bourjos and Blanco even hooked up on a double steal with Blanco becoming the first Phillie to swipe home since Chase Utley in 2009. (An off-line throw to second by Tigers catcher James McCann helped.) 

“We have to try things,” Mackanin said. “We can’t bang it out with most teams so we have to try that kind of stuff, take chances.”

The Phillies actually banged it on this day.

Bourjos’ homer in the seventh provided some valuable cushion.

There are no cheap homers in spacious Comerica Park. Bourjos’ homer traveled 401 feet according to ESPN’s play by play.

Though Bourjos claimed he did not see Herrera’s bat flip in fifth inning, he was aware of it. For the record, Bourjos did not flip his bat on his homer. He put his head down and ran.

“I don’t have that kind of swag,” he said with a laugh.

Bat flips make some folks, particularly old-schoolers, uncomfortable. Bautista’s famous bat flip against Texas in the playoffs last season led to simmering tensions all winter and eventually a brawl between the two teams two weeks ago.

Mackanin actually seemed a little uncomfortable talking about Herrera’s flip.

“I did not see it,” Mackanin said. “A lot of players believe that they should be able to celebrate. But I didn’t see it. I wish you never brought it up.”

Herrera explained that he always flips his bat, even when he makes outs. This one had a little extra oomph, he said, because, "I didn’t expect to hit it that far.”

And how far did he hit it?

Well, ESPN’s play by play said it traveled 409 feet. MLB’s Statcast said it went 427.

Either way, that’s a long Uber ride.

Herrera was asked what was more impressive, the flip or the homer?

“Both,” he said with a laugh.

Herrera has become a more demonstrative player in his second year in the league. He’s letting his emotions show. On Monday night, frustration over a poor at-bat got the best of him. He did not run out a ball back to the pitcher and was benched.

On Wednesday, his emotion was more triumphant, hence the bat flip. But sometimes that can make an opponent angry. There were no repercussions Wednesday and probably won’t be because the Tigers and Phillies don’t see each other again this season. But down the road?

“I’m not worried,” Mackanin said.

“It was nothing personal,” Herrera said. “It was natural.”

Maikel Franco says ankle injury is mild, vows to play Friday

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Maikel Franco says ankle injury is mild, vows to play Friday

DETROIT — The Phillies have an off day Thursday.
 
It will come in handy for Maikel Franco.
 
The third baseman suffered what was termed a sprained right ankle while sliding into second base in the top of the seventh inning Wednesday. He hobbled off the field before the start of the bottom of the inning.
 
After the game, both Franco and manager Pete Mackanin stressed that the sprain was mild.
 
Franco received treatment after coming out of the game and he will again on the off day. Mackanin said he would exercise caution in determining Franco’s availability for Friday afternoon, but did not rule out playing Franco.
 
Franco was adamant. He’s playing.
 
“It’s a little bit sore, but it’s fine,” he said. “It already feels better. I’ll be ready for Friday. With the day off, I know I’ll be OK.”
 
If Franco can’t play, Mackanin would insert super-sub Andres Blanco into the lineup. He had two hits, including an RBI double, and scored two runs in Wednesday’s win over the Tigers (see Instant Replay).
 
Franco had a pair of singles and is 7 for 15 in his last four games.

Frank Reich: Sam Bradford won't be handed Eagles' starting job

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Frank Reich: Sam Bradford won't be handed Eagles' starting job

After the Eagles drafted quarterback Carson Wentz, head coach Doug Pederson declared that Sam Bradford was still the No. 1 quarterback.

Pederson reiterated it when a scowling Bradford chose to skip some voluntary workouts and did so again after Bradford returned to the team.

But Pederson's assistants haven't been so clear.

On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz discussed the topic when asked how he brought along QB Matt Stafford — the first overall pick in 2009 — while serving as head coach of the Detroit Lions. 

"Don't judge him on somebody else, and then also don't predetermine the results of the race," Schwartz said. "Just let him go play. Don't put pressure on him."

At the moment, it certainly seems like the results of the race are predetermined. It's Bradford, Chase Daniel and Wentz ... right? 

On Wednesday, offensive coordinator Frank Reich was on 94-WIP and was asked by Angelo Cataldi about the "impression" that Bradford is the No. 1 QB and there isn't an open competition. 

“No, I would actually say that’s probably not the right impression. I'll tell you why,” Reich said. “I’ve been around this business a long time as a player and as a coach, and one of the things I’ve really come to appreciate is it’s not a contradiction to say that you’ve got to have order. Because if you don’t order it’s chaos. 

"So if you’re the head coach you, gotta come in and you’ve gotta establish order. There has to be organization, there has to be order, but the other thing that, as coaches, that you’ve got to establish is a culture of competition. I mean this is one of the most competitive industries in the world — and so, to say that there’s not competition, that’s just the furthest thing from the truth.

“So I don’t see the problem with creating order and competition at the same time, personally. Every one of us as a coach and a player, you’re working harder to get better, but in that process you have to establish order, and things have a way of working themselves out.”

So there has to be a order — hence Pederson's QB depth chart — but there also has to be competition.

In other words, there is a depth chart, but it's written in pencil. And a big eraser is nearby.

Let the saga continue.

Training camp is still two months away.