By Sarah Kwak
NEW YORK -- Bouncing back has been a theme all season in Philadelphia, where the Flyers have embraced adversity and turned it into a strength. Their atrocious 1-7-0 start and the dismissal of coach Peter Laviolette were just minor detours on the way to a 94-point season. Captain Claude Giroux went goalless for the first month of the season, but turned his season around and became the NHL’s most productive player of the second half. Philly had the third-best record in the Eastern Conference when trailing after two periods and they scored the second-most third-period goals in the league. Really, bad starts don’t seem to bother the Flyers all that much. Game 2 of their series against the Rangers proved that on Sunday afternoon.
Philadelphia rookie Jason Akeson redeemed himself after a catastrophic playoff debut in a 4-1 loss in Game 1, and goalie Ray Emery also improved his play markedly -- on Thursday, his surgically-repaired hips had been exploited time and time again. Despite falling behind by two goals in the first 10 minutes of the game on Sunday, the Flyers didn’t panic. They fought back, and though they were outshot 33-25 by New York, three second-period goals carried them to a 4-2 win. As the series heads two hours south down I-95, Philly and Rangers are now tied one game apiece.
A few observations from Madison Square Garden on Easter Sunday:
• Emery’s limited lateral movement in net is still a weakness -- both of New York’s first-period goals reminded us of that. Four minutes into the game, on a three-on-two rush, Rick Nash brought the puck into the zone with speed on the left side. He crossed to center Derek Stepan, who then quickly dished to Martin St. Louis, who sent the easy one-timer into a yawning net. Four minutes later, Benoit Pouliot nearly whiffed on a cross-ice pass from Derick Brassard, but with Emery's slow post-to-post slide, Pouliot’s weak shot still beat the Flyers goalie to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. For as long as Emery is in net, odd-man rushes will be a problem, but if the Flyers can limit cross-ice passes, and if Emery can read plays better, as he did when he denied Stepan's backdoor chance late in the second period, the weakness can be a manageable one. After those two early goals, Philadelphia did a better job of adding support to limit cross-ice passes and blocked more shots in front of Emery.
• After Game 1, in which New York held a 36-15 advantage in shots, Flyers coach Craig Berube stressed his desire to have Philly become a better possession team. On Sunday afternoon, the Flyers took steps in that direction. In the third period, Philadelphia was sustaining offensive zone time and generating shots -- it was the first period in this series in which the Flyers had outshot the Rangers. In the early going, however, it was still a struggle, and there are specific areas in which Philadelphia could do more to help itself. Getting out of their defensive zone was a battle for the Flyers blueliners, and the neutral zone was a minefield during the first period. Even when Philly did get the puck into the offensive zone, the Flyers failed to keep it there, losing all but one of their six offensive-zone draws in the first period. They improved as the game wore on, but still, going 4-for-15 on the offensive dots is not the mark of a good possession team.
• Akeson was the goat in Game 1 when he took a costly high-sticking double minor in the third period. But he rebounded from what could have been a demoralizing game on Sunday, even chipping in a power-play goal. Berube said after the game that he had no trouble deciding to play the 23-year-old again in Game 2. “I understand he took a four-minute penalty, but he played well,” Berube said. “It was a mistake, and you have to learn from them, but he’s a good player ... He shoots the puck and knows how to put the puck in the net.” Akeson is tied the team's postseason lead with six shots on net, an area in which Berube said he thought his players could improve.
• Though the Rangers were outscored 2-0 in the second, coach Alain Vigneault said after the game that he thought it was his team’s best period of the afternoon. Outshooting the Flyers 17-9 in the middle frame, New York leaned on its top line for offensive pressure. Nash, Stepan and St. Louis generated most of the best chances, including Nash’s chance in tight on Emery late in the second, one of his three shots in the period. Nash finished with a game-high six shots on goal, and his linemates had another five. But Emery and the Philadelphia blue line were sound enough to limit the damage.
• The best-on-best matchups Vigneault favored in Games 1 and 2 may not make the trip to the Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers will have the last change. Expect Berube to switch things up and get his top line away from Nash, Stepan and St. Louis. Though Jakub Voracek scored late in the first on a power move, beating Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh wide and cutting to the net, the Flyers’ top forwards still didn’t match up well against New York’s top line on Sunday. Claude Giroux was 4-for-9 in the face-off circle against Stepan and went without a shot for the second straight game. If he wants to be an offensive catalyst for his team, the Flyers captain will need to produce more, and that might start with getting him away from New York’s top line and the shutdown defensive pairing of McDonagh and Dan Girardi.