GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- On paper, the Eastern Conference First Round series between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers looked like a classic matchup. Until the opening faceoff Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, the series appeared to hinge on how New York's speed would fare against Philadelphia's aggressive forecheck.
The Rangers showed plenty of speed and skill while outshooting the Flyers 36-15 in a 4-1 victory in Game 1. But they also showed they are more than just a finesse team.
Philadelphia came out with its signature physicality, but as the game wore on, it was New York that became the aggressor. By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Rangers had made a major statement by showing their grit along with a willingness to go blow for blow against one of the NHL's toughest teams.
There should be lots more physicality when they meet for Game 2 on Sunday (Noon ET; NBC, TSN, RDS).
"The Flyers have a reputation and they play to that reputation. There's going to be a lot of talk about it," said forward Derek Dorsett, who was among the Rangers leading the way physically. "We can't shy away from them; we have to go right back at them. I think the guys we have in here are very capable of doing that."
New York controlled the tempo early in Game 1, but Philadelphia was clearly the more aggressive team. The Flyers were winning battles and finishing checks, and their aggressive play led directly to the game's first goal.
Flyers forward Scott Hartnell rubbed out New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh behind the Rangers net before stealing the puck and feeding defenseman Andrew MacDonald at the point. MacDonald's slap shot deflected into the net at 7:28 of the opening period, giving Philadelphia a 1-0 lead on its first shot of the game.
It was exactly the type of play New York had hoped to avoid against the physical Flyers.
But the Rangers responded 3:25 later on an aggressive drive to the net by one of the NHL's smallest players. Forward Mats Zuccarello, who is 5-foot-7, evened the score when he followed his own shot, found open space in front of the Philadelphia net and whipped the rebound past goalie Ray Emery. Zuccarello's equalizer came one shift after Brian Boyle turned the physical tide with a big hit on defenseman Luke Schenn behind the Philadelphia net that led directly to a scoring chance for the Rangers.
From that point on, the Rangers continued to ramp up their physical game.
"I think we play that way a lot. We get in and forecheck and get hits and try to get the puck back. They're going to play the way they play, so are we," said Boyle, who tied for the team lead with four hits. "It's the playoffs. We're going to come and be physical and so are they. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. It's not like the first time we threw a hit all year was against Philly. We play hard, we have all year. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong."
New York ended the night with 32 hits, well above its season average of 23.2 and the most since the Rangers had 34 in a 2-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 7.
One player who exemplified New York's toughness in Game 1 was forward Carl Hagelin, who took a high stick from Jason Akeson with the game tied 1-1 in the third period that left him with a prominent gash under his lower lip. The Rangers scored twice during the ensuing double minor to take over the game.
Hagelin didn't miss a shift and scored New York's fourth goal with 4:08 remaining in the third by crashing the net and pouncing on the rebound of Brad Richards' shot. When Hagelin addressed the media after the game, he was still bleeding from underneath his swollen bottom lip.
"Normally, I feel a bit bad for him, but he can take one for the team," goaltender Henrik Lundqvist joked about Hagelin. "When you get hit in the face like that and you score two goals, you can deal with it. It seems like this year his face has been a magnet. I don't know how many times he got hit in the face with the puck."
It seemed like a fitting end to a night in which the Rangers were expected to rely on speed but tapped into their reserve to provide some toughness.
"It's something we're not identified with, being the most physical team, but we've never shied away from it. We've always competed and battled in those areas," defenseman Marc Staal said. "It's not just physical. It's being tough in all the areas you need to be tough in; corner battles and all that stuff. We've been there all year long. We're confident we can do that."
The Rangers answered any questions about their grit and toughness in Game 1, and they have no intention of backing down during the remainder of the series.
"We talked about it. We don't want to back away from them. We're not going to be intimidated," Dorsett said. "We're all big boys and strong guys. We can go at them and finish our checks and counter their hits. It will be a fun series to be a part of."
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