New York Rangers

Flyers have clear path to postseason but ...

Flyers have clear path to postseason but ...

It’s about to get real for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Real serious and potentially really hard. The Flyers have played the fewest divisional games of any team in the NHL.

That might be beneficial if the team located about 40 minutes off the shores of the Atlantic Ocean actually played in the Atlantic Division. The Flyers have hammered Atlantic teams this season: an 8-4-0 record including a win in Tampa and their most recent three-game series sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Whereas the Atlantic houses a collection of domesticated poodles and Pomeranians, the Metropolitan Division is more a breeding ground for vicious Dobermans and pit bulls.

And the Flyers are about to enter the teeth of that beast.

Dave Hakstol’s club plays 19 of their remaining 37 games against the rock-solid Metropolitan, the only 8-team division in hockey without a legitimate doormat or two. 

“It’s good or bad depending on whether you’re winning or not,” general manager Ron Hextall said.“It’s great taking points from other teams and adding to your total. It does put a higher importance on those games for sure. Every game is important, but certain games are just a little more important. Your lows can’t be too low. That’s the bottom line.

“They’re divisional games. They’re huge games for us, especially with how tight it is with that wild card spot,” center Sean Couturier said. “We’ve got to step up and be ready for the challenge.”

Unfortunately for the Flyers, their sore spot over their past two-plus seasons has been their play against the Metropolitan elites — the teams they’re typically chasing in the standings.

4-4-1 vs. Capitals
3-5-2 vs. Rangers
3-6-1 vs. Penguins
2-3-4 vs. Blue Jackets

Collectively, that’s a 12-18-8 record in the Dave Hakstol era with just a 4-9-6 mark on the road. Interestingly, defenseman Brandon Manning believes roster formation has been part of the reason behind the success of the Flyers' opponents.  

“Credit to them, I think they’ve done a good job of getting better every year,” Manning said. “You look at what Pittsburgh does with their turnover and still finding a way to win. Columbus is so much better and you look at Jersey, which hasn’t been the greatest team the past couple of years, but this year they have a really good hockey team. I think credit to those teams for finding a way to get better.” 

And if there’s a direct path to the postseason, then winning these crucial divisional games has to be the way to get there. Since the formation of the NHL’s current four-division alignment in 2013-14, the Metropolitan has sent 17 teams to the playoffs and only once has a team reached the postseason without a winning record within the division — the Pittsburgh Penguins finished 9-17-4 in the Metro in 2014-15. 

The Capitals, Rangers and Blue Jackets also have the luxury of rostering a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender in crucial divisional games, whereas, Hakstol will rely more on a platoon based on Elliott’s first-half workload and Neuvirth attempting to regain his early season form.  

“I haven’t studied the schedule that much in depth, but considering Moose started a stretch of 25 out of 30 games, that’s a real heavy workload,” Hakstol said. “I would expect the workload to be more spread out than that. We’ll find the best rhythm to be able and have both of them help our team.

“You need two goalies. I don’t care who you are,” Hextall said. “Look around the league. I said it before, there’s no Marty Brodeurs.”

Maybe not, but Saturday it all starts with Brodeur’s former team and with a back-to-back against the Devils and the Capitals this weekend. The Flyers' position within the division can change very drastically one direction or the other.

Flyers not surprised, but look it on Broadway

Flyers not surprised, but look it on Broadway

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Flyers players lifted their massive equipment bags onto carts outside the visiting locker room of Madison Square Garden.

There wasn't much energy or zealousness to such a mundane task.

Shortly before doing so, the Flyers made skating in the world's most famous arena seem just as mundane, allowing the New York Rangers to turn Broadway into breakaway on Tuesday night to the tune of a 5-1 loss (see observations).

"We just made too many mistakes that cost us," Jakub Voracek said. "Four goals out of five came off our mistakes, so it's tough."

The Rangers, not once, but twice during the first period, bolted behind the Flyers' slow-reacting coverage for nothing but open ice and Brian Elliott to beat. On both occasions, New York scored easily and took control of the evening.

It was a full exploitation of a Flyers team that had won four straight but wasn't "engaged in this game enough," as head coach Dave Hakstol put it.

With the Flyers holding a 1-0 lead just over six minutes into the contest, Pavel Buchnevich fed a stretch pass to Rick Nash streaking up the middle of the ice, leaving defensemen Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning in the dust. Both the delivery from Buchnevich and the speed of Nash appeared to catch Gudas and Manning by surprise.

"The first one, probably a better read by me and Gudy," Manning said. "We talked before the game, we knew that's what they were going to do, they were going to try and stretch us out. That one we can probably eliminate."

The second was deflating in every way imaginable. As the Flyers sputtered through their first man advantage, a pass behind Jordan Weal bounced off the side boards and right to Peter Holland. With most of the Flyers' second power-play unit pinching on the attack, New York rushed up ice and beat Manning in retreat as Holland hit Paul Carey for a shorthanded marker.

Whatever life the Flyers still had, it was sucked out of them.

At the time, before it unfolded, they seemed to be in OK position. The Flyers were down, 2-1, but vying for an equalizer by turning to their power play, which had been 7 for 14 over the four-game winning streak. However, what transpired was New York taking a surprising 3-1 lead with 10 seconds remaining in the opening frame.

"Those are ones we can prevent," Hakstol said. "They're a good transition team, so when you give them opportunities, whether it's a turnover out of their defensive zone or a turnover entering the zone, they're a good transition team. But our awareness on those plays was not what it needs to be.

"I just thought in the first half of the game, in all the areas of the game that mattered, they were the quicker and hungrier team."

The Rangers showed it some more when they went on another semi-breakaway, this time midway through the second period for a 4-1 edge. Michael Grabner came swooping in to pick Voracek's pocket before quickly flicking a shot past Elliott, who watched another blue jersey barrel down untouched toward his crease.

"We put him in pretty tough spots tonight with the opportunities that we gave up in the first 30 minutes of the game," Hakstol said.

The goalie making his 18th start in the last 19 games still took blame.

"It's not the easiest way, but that's my job," Elliott, who was yanked ahead of the third period, said. "I didn't have them tonight. Go back to work and try to feel good about my game. That's not where I wanted to be tonight. I didn't really give ourselves a chance to win and I've got to own a lot of that."

Tuesday marked the Flyers' first outing against the Rangers this season.

Were they surprised by the opposition's transition game?

"No," Hakstol said.

Manning sounded like he will be far more ready when the Flyers come back to Madison Square Garden on Feb. 18 for the second of four meetings.

"I don't know if surprising is the right word, they have some guys who can skate and I think we were expecting that," Manning said. "We haven't played them this year, it's the first time. When you see it for the first time, it's something a little different."

The Flyers on Thursday night will see the Maple Leafs for the third time. The previous two matchups were won by the Flyers. Interestingly enough, Manning had his best game of the season with a goal, an assist and three hits in the October victory, while rookie blueliner Travis Sanheim played in the December win.

Hakstol will have to decide between the two for Thursday.

One will be an extra, the other will want to make sure breakaways are at a minimum.

Flyers' win streak gone in a New York minute

Flyers' win streak gone in a New York minute

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — The Flyers looked lost on Broadway while the Rangers put on a show.

A four-game win streak vanished into the New York night for the Flyers, who lost badly to the Rangers, 5-1, on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.

Not long after Jordan Weal handed the Flyers a 1-0 lead just over two minutes into the game, things went south and never got better.

Dave Hakstol's club was slipshod in all phases, from the power play (which had been terrific) to neutral-zone coverage. You name the area and the Flyers were not sharp. They allowed three breakaway goals, one of which was a shorthanded marker.

At first intermission, the Flyers trailed 3-1. By second intermission, it was 5-1 and all but over. Goalie Brian Elliott was pulled ahead of the third period as Michal Neuvirth finished off the ugly loss.

The Flyers (20-16-8) are now 1-5-2 in their last eight games against New York.

The Rangers (23-17-5), who had lost two straight out of the bye week by a combined score of 12-4, regrouped rather impressively.

The defeat was also not the way the Flyers wanted to kick off their four-game regular-season series with the Rangers. They missed an opportunity to catapult past New York in the Metropolitan Division standings as a regulation win would have done the trick. Instead, the Flyers (48 points) remain behind the Rangers (51) and Islanders (50).

With that said, let's get into the observations:

• Over the four-game winning streak, Sean Couturier had four goals and nine points, Claude Giroux seven assists and eight points, and Jakub Voracek seven assists. Those three were neutralized as the trio went scoreless and had only four shots on goal.

Voracek had an ugly sequence of events in the second period, resulting in the Flyers' deficit ballooning to 4-1. Voracek committed a questionable hooking penalty (he visibly disagreed with the call) and when he left the box after the Flyers had killed off his infraction, the right winger was stripped of the puck by Michael Grabner, who netted his 20th of the season on a semi-breakaway look. The goal felt like a dagger in the fashion it was scored halfway through the middle stanza.

• Third-pair defenseman Brandon Manning had a rough first period. New York scored a pair of breakaway goals (Rick Nash at even strength, Paul Carey at shorthanded) and Manning was on the ice for both in which a Ranger snuck behind the defense for broad daylight. On the first, Nash beat both Manning and Radko Gudas. On the second, Manning was seeing some power-play time and a miscue by the Flyers resulted in a rush for the Rangers as a lead pass beat Manning.

The 27-year-old undrafted Manning hasn't been as bad as the criticism he receives, but he'll have to be better than Tuesday's performance if he wants to keep 21-year-old Travis Sanheim in the press box.

• The Flyers' power play was out of sync on its first chance late in the first period. The first unit nearly allowed a shorthanded marker before the second unit actually did. Overall, the man advantage looked passive at times and went 0 for 3. In its defense, the power play was 7 for 14 over the team's four-game winning streak with the NHL's best percentage since Jan. 4, the start of its run. Meanwhile, the Rangers' power play was 3 for its last 31 but went 1 for 2.

• Weal likes to play with speed and shiftiness, but when things haven't gone his way, he's worked his tail off around the net, where he's found production. He did it just over two minutes into Tuesday's game by standing right on Henrik Lundqvist's doorstep and deflecting a shot for the 1-0 lead. Give the 5-foot-10, 179-pounder credit for his willingness to adjust styles in order to make an impact as he has three goals and five points in his last six games. That was one of few positives on Tuesday for the Flyers.

• The NHL's sixth-ranked power play of the Flyers was going up against the league's third-ranked penalty kill of the Rangers. New York clearly won the matchup of this special teams battle.

• Travis Konecny, now on the first line, entered with six points (two goals, four assists) in his previous seven games, but went scoreless against New York.

• Elliott, making his 18th start in the last 19 games, did not have much help from his defense. The Rangers also got a power-play tally in which two bodies lined up in front Elliott, with J.T. Miller redirecting a point shot by Ryan McDonagh. Elliott's final goal allowed was one he'd like to have had back as Nash beat him on a straight shot from the circle late in the second period for the 5-1 hole.

• Lundqvist, who turns 36 years old on March 2, is now 35-14-4 in 55 career games against the Flyers. He made 25 saves on 26 shots.

• Since their 10-game losing streak, the Flyers were 12-4-1 with a plus-15 goal differential, outscoring the opposition, 58-43, coming into Tuesday. This was a clunker but the Flyers can't afford to keep this up against divisional opponents because that's the majority of the remaining schedule. The Flyers are 3-2-4 against Metropolitan competition thus far.

• The Flyers practice Wednesday and then host the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday (7 p.m./NBCSP). Before puck drop, the Flyers will hold a special ceremony honoring Eric Lindros, who is having his No. 88 retired by the club (see story).