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Rival in Focus: New York Rangers

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

In the earliest years of the Philadelphia Flyers' history, the St. Louis Blues were the team's bitterest rival. That faded by the early 1970s, however. Over the last 30 years, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been the most hated NHL rival for the Flyers. Philly also has longstanding ebb-and-flow rivalries with the New York Islanders, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and, due largely to the sheer number of playoff series the Flyers played against them, the Buffalo Sabres. 

However, if there has been one single rival that has been despised the most consistently for the entire duration of the Flyers' 54-season existence, it's been the New York Rangers. Rangers fans delight in reminding their Flyers counterparts that Philadelphia has not won the Stanley Cup in 45 years. Flyers fans retort by telling the Rangers that the Blueshirts own but a single Stanley Cup championship in the last 80 years and the most recent one (1994 under former Flyers coach Mike Keenan) is now more than a quarter-century removed in its own right.

Regardless of where the two teams are in the standings in any given season or time period, these are two teams that can't abide the thought of losing to the other. On an all-time basis, the Flyers hold a 131-123-9 regular season record against the Rangers plus 37 ties (pre-shootout era). The Flyers own a 74-57-6 (14 ties) home record against the Rangers at the Spectrum but have a losing record of 57-66-3 record (23 ties) at Madison Square Garden. The teams have faced off 11 times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Philadelphia winning six series (1974, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1995, and 1997) and the Rangers prevailing in five (1979, 1982, 1983, 1985 and 2014). Additionally, the final game of the 2009-10 regular season, with a trip to the playoffs at stake for both sides, came down to the Flyers defeating the visiting Rangers via shootout. 

From the 2011-12 season series until 2016-17, the Rangers got the better of the Flyers more often than Philly came away victorious. Over the last few years, though, the pendulum swung back in the Flyers' favor while the Rangers underwent a rather rapid rebuilding process. 

The Blueshirts were below the Stanley Cup playoff cutoff line last season in mid-March at the time the COVID-19 pandemic forced the pausing and eventual cancelation of the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season. New York had gotten scorching hot in February but the Flyers proceeded to sweep a home-and-home set with the Rangers with a pair of resounding victories. The back-to-back defeats seemed to take the wind out of the Rangers' sails in their quest to earn at least a wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. However, the expansion of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton allowed the Rangers to earn a berth in the best-of-five Qualification Round (AKA, the play-ins) where they got swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. 

The consolation prize: New York won the NHL Draft Lottery for the first overall pick of the 2020 Draft, where they made the no-brainer selection of left winger Alexis Lafreniere with the first pick. Although not quite regarded in the "generational player" category of prospect such as Eric Lindros, Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid in their Draft years, Lafreniere is nevertheless regarded as a future NHL star and quite possibly a superstar-caliber player. 

He will join a roster that also features offensively gifted 19-year-old right winger Kaapo Kakko; the second overall pick of the 2019 NHL Draft. Kaako had the usual ups and downs of a teenaged rookie in the NHL last season but he still managed 10 goals and 23 points while learning of the high degree of structure, pacing and off-puck expectations that are part and parcel of today's NHL game.

The Rangers have high hopes that 21-year-old Filip Chytil, a first-round pick in 27, will blossom in his fourth pro season and third in the NHL. He's shown flashes of brilliance so far, and popped 14 goals last season in 60 games, but needs to elevate his game on a more consistent basis moving forwards.

New York also boasts one of the fastest-rising young goaltenders in the NHL in Igor Sheshterkin. Between Philadelphia's Carter Hart, the Rangers' Sheshterkin and New Jersey's Mackenzie Blackwood, three of the finest young netminders across the entire league reside within one division.  

The Rangers also have the capable Alexandar Georgiev, now age 24, to absorb some playing time in goal. The departure of longtime superstar Henrik Lundqvist after last season (before "the King" was diagnosed with the heart condition that required successful surgery) marked the end of an iconic era for the Rangers' franchise, but the team appears to be in good hands moving forward with Shesterkin as their starter.

PLAYOFF HOPES START WITH THE "BREAD MAN AND "ZIBBY"

While Lafreniere, Kakko. Chytil and Sheshterkin are crucial pieces to the Rangers' future who are also important pieces in the present, the single biggest key to the Rangers' fortunes in the here-and-now is the continued dominance of superstar left winger Artemi Panarin.

Last season, in the first year of a seven-season, $11.6 million average annual value (i.e., cap hit) contract, Panarin was tied for third in the Art Ross Trophy race with 95 points (32g, 63a). These were career highs in all three key offensive categories. 

Now 29 years old (originally an undrafted free agent signing by Chicago, Panarin did not come to the NHL until age 24), Panarin is a threat to make things happen any time he has the puck on his stick.

Playing alongside Panarin, center Mika Zibanejad took the jump last season from being an above-average NHL pivot to a major impact player. Limited to just 57 games, the Swedish forward nevertheless racked up the first 40-goal season of his career after notching his first 30 goal campaign one year prior to Panarin's arrival. Zibanejad also set a new career high with 75 points in 2019-20. At age 27, the big-framed center is in the prime of his career.

Twenty-seven-year-old Ryan Strome is coming off a 59-point campaign (18g, 41a) that saw him chip in 17 power play points in his second season as a Ranger. Strome is not a speedster by any means but the former Islanders first-round pick sees the ice well and has good hands. 

A consistent year-in and year-old performer, 28-year-old Chris Kreider has long since put to rest any doubts about his ability to come back from rib removal surgery in 2018. Last season, Kreider posted 24 goals and 45 points in 63 games. 

Among opposing team players, 24-year-old Brendan Lemieux, appears to following the same path as his father, Claude, in becoming the Ranger most likely to get under their skin. He also chipped in a half-dozen goals and 18 points in 50 games last year to go along with his 111 penalty minutes.

Entering his fifth year in the NHL with New York, 25-year-old Pavel Buchnevich has given the Rangers some runs of productive play and has shown the potential to become a perennial 25-goal, 55-point contributor. To date, his career highs are 21 goals (2018-19) and 46 points (2019-20). He is highly skilled as a puckhandler, possesses an above average shot and an above-average frame. Consistency in his both his productivity and his commitment to a two-way game have been works in progress in Buchnevich's career to date.

On the blueline, the Rangers made a major investment last season when they signed unrestricted free agent Jacob Trouba to a long-term contract that carries an $8 million AAV through 2005-26 along with a full no-movement clause. The 26-year-old is an all-situations player who can handle a lot of ice time. He's not a superstar point producer or elite shutdown defender but is above-average in most areas of the game; wherein his primary value lies.

There's a lot of talented youth on the Rangers' blueline, which means living with some defensive mistakes but also reaping benefits from their diverse skillsets and long-term upsides. 

Twenty-two-year-old USNTDP/ Harvard University product Adam Fox brings hockey smarts, mobility, puck-moving acumen and offensive ability. All he lacks is size, but there are many standout smaller-framed defensemen in today's NHL. The right-handed shooting Fox made an instant impact as a rookie last season, posting 42 points and showing a high degree of maturity despite his tender age.

Tony DeAngelo, now 25, has always had outstanding offensive skills. The on-ice question was his two-way play. The New Jersey native bounced around three NHL organizations in quick succession. He had some maturity/emotional control issues that made him a controversial figure in his Draft year and early pro career but he seems to have found a home with the Rangers and has blossomed offensively. Last season, the offensive defenseman racked up 15 goals and 53 points in 68 games, ranking fourth in scoring leaguewide among defensemen.

The Rangers remain optimistic as well about 22-year-old Ryan Lindgren as he enters his second full NHL season and third professional year after turning pro following his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota. He averaged 16:34 of ice time for the Rangers last season as a rookie after getting a five-game cup of coffee with the NHL club in 2018-19.

Twenty-two-year-old Libor Hajek appeared in 28 regular season games (15;59 TOI) for the Rangers last season from October to January in addition to an AHL stint with Hartford. He will push to solidify an NHL spot over the course of the 2020-21 season. Hajek got a head start on training camp this season by playing 10 games on loan to Czech Extraliga team Kometa Brno.

Veteran Brendan Smith, now 31, dressed in 62 games last year in a third-pairing role (11:06 TOI). In the offseason, the Rangers added 30-year-old Anthony Bitetto for blueline depth, on an inexpensive two-year contract. 

FLYERS VS. RANGERS SEASON SERIES SCHEDULE

Feb. 18: New York Rangers @ Flyers
Feb. 24: New York Rangers @ Flyers
Mar. 15: Flyers @ New York Rangers
Mar. 17: Flyers @ New York Rangers
Mar. 25: New York Rangers @ Flyers
Mar. 27: New York Rangers @ Flyers
Apr. 23: Flyers @ New York Rangers

RIVALRY HISTORY

An entire book could be written about the regular season clashes, postseason wars, offseason competition for signing talent, the fanbase enmity and the unspoken but hard-earned respect that underlies the first 53 seasons of the Flyers vs. Rangers rivalry. In lieu of an exhaustive history, here's a chronological thumbnail sketch of some of the highlights:

The Flyers becoming the only expansion team to defeat each of the Original Six franchises at least once in their inaugural (1967-68 season) season, including a win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in the first-ever game between the teams (Nov. 16, 1967).

The physical between the Rangers' Reg "the Ruffian' Fleming and Flyers players in the first two years of the Philadelphia franchise's existence -- especially a doozy of a fight with Earl Heiskala on Oct. 16, 1968 -- followed by Fleming becoming a Flyers for one year (1969-70).

The Hall of Fame goalie battles between Bernie Parent and Ed Giacomin. The 1974 playoff war that really kicked the early rivalry into overdrive. Barry Ashbee suffering a career-ending eye-injury. Dale Rolfe getting thrashed by Dave Schultz in Game 7 at the Spectrum as the eventual champion Flyers closed out the semifinal series. Rangers star defenseman Brad Park saying he'd rather lose with the Rangers than win with the Flyers, and Philadelphia players taking Park to task for his comments.

The controversial 1978 departure of Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero from the Flyers to become the coach and general manager of the hated Blueshirts. The Flyers' bitter loss to Shero's Rangers in the first round of the 1979 playoffs, as New York eventually advanced to the Stanley Cup Final before getting taken apart by the dynastic Montreal Canadiens.

The end-of-the-1970s and early 1980s image clash between the rugged holdover and new members of the Broad Street Bullies versus. the Sasson jeans-endorsing team from Broadway.  

Flyers coach Bob McCammon's tongue-in-cheek reference to a largely under-sized Blueshirts squad as "Smurfs", and the Rangers knocking off the favored Flyers in the first round of the playoffs in both 1982 and 1983.

Pelle Lindbergh's brilliance in Game 2 of the 1985 Patrick Division semifinals. Tim Kerr's four consecutive goals in the second period of Philly's clinching win at Madison Square Garden.

Rangers fans at Madison Square Garden (save for a very small percentage of classless and clueless attendees) giving Flyers players a standing ovation as they took the ice for their first game at MSG following Lindbergh's tragic death. 

Vezina Trophy winner John Vanbiesbrouck outplaying Vezina runner up and Jennings Trophy winner Bob Froese to steal a first-round series against the prohibitive favorite Flyers in the first round of the 1985 playoffs.

Flyers players fans instantly embracing -- and Rangers players and partisans immediately taking dislike -- to feisty rookie Flyers goalie Ron Hextall. Rangers fans started serenading the Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winning rival netminder with jeering "Hex-tall, Hex-tall" chants in imitation of the "Dar-ryl, Dar-yl" taunts that New York Mets star Darryl Strawberry received on the road. Hextall got the last laugh in the Patrick Division semifinals, won four games to two by Philly, with shutout performances punctuating Game 3 and Game 6. The Rangers were also held to a single goal in Game 5.

Flyers players' (and fans') intense dislike for Rangers forward Tomas Sandström for reputed sneaky dirtiness with his stick and embellishment. Things culminated in Nov. 1987. Flyers enforcer Dave Brown paid the Swedish forward back tenfold for a spear on Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe by cross-checking Sandström upside his head. Brown was suspended for 13 games plus each of the next two games against the Rangers.

The Quebec Nordiques' "double trade" of Eric Lindros' rights at the 1992 NHL Draft. The case went to arbitration before it was ruled that the Flyers had made an enforceable trade before the Nordiques turned around and attempted to trade Lindros to the Rangers.

Lindros and company versus childhood idol Mark Messier and company in the mid-1990s. The Legion of Doom, Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Desjardins and Hextall keying a Flyers sweep of the defending Stanley Cup champion Blueshirts in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Flyers won each of the first two games at home in overtime and then won handily at Madison Square Garden in the next two.

The Rangers going all-out to sign unrestricted free agent shutdown center Joel Otto during the 1995 offseason, specifically with matching up against Lindros in mind. The Flyers beating New York to the punch and inking the hard-nosed perennial Selke Trophy candidate to go up against former Oilers arch-nemesis Messier. 

Near the 1996 trade deadline, the Flyers and Rangers putting in competing trade offers to the LA Kings for the services of aging Hall of Famer Jari Kurri and tough guy defenseman Marty McSorley. The Rangers closed the deal. However, the Flyers still went on to win the Atlantic Division and the top spot in the Eastern Conference entering the playoffs.

The last hurrah of the remnants of the Oilers' dynasty as the Rangers (with Wayne Gretzky and Messier) going up against the Flyers (with Paul Coffey) in the 1997 Eastern Conference Final. The Flyers prevailed in five games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1987.

The Flyers trading Lindros to the Rangers on Aug. 20, 2001, for Kim Johnsson, Jan Hlavac (later flipped to Vancouver for Donald Brashear) and underachieving but gifted forward prospect Pavel Brendl.

The 2009-10 playoff picture coming down to a final-day meeting between the Flyers and Rangers with the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference at stake. Brian Boucher staked the Flyers to a dramatic shootout win, with Danny Briere and Claude Giroux scoring on Lundqvist in the shootout. Boucher's save on Olli Jokinen ended the Rangers' season. Philadelphia went on to get within two wins of the Stanley Cup.

The 2012 Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park, won by the Rangers, 3-2, on Jan. 2, 2012. Lundvist's late-game penalty shot save on Briere preserved the lead. Two days earlier, the Flyers Alumni Team defeated the Rangers Alumni Team, 3-1, in front of 45,000 fans at the ballpark. Bernie Parent started in goal for the Flyers Alumni. The day also marked the official reconciliation between Lindros and the Flyers' organization as No. 88 donned a Flyers uniform for the first time since Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils.

The Rangers, coached by Alain Vigneault, prevailing in seven games over the Flyers in the first round of the 2014 Eastern Conference playoffs. Strong goaltending by Philadelphia's Steve Mason and a solid series by team captain Claude Giroux went to waste. Lundqvist was even better for New York. The Rangers went on to reach the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the LA Kings.

Giroux recording a hat trick at the expense of Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers to clinch a playoff spot for the Flyers in the final game of the 2017-18 season. Giroux was serenaded by chants of "MVP! MVP!" by the Wells Fargo Center crowd.

The Rangers winning five in a row and nine of 10 in February, 2020, to move within striking distance of playoff position in the Eastern Conference with a home-and-home set looming against the Flyers. Philly cooled the Rangers off with a 5-2 victory at the Wells Fargo Center and a 5-3 win at Madison Square Garden.

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