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Goaltending is a difference between Flyers, Rangers

by Dan Rosen

"I see the Rangers in a bit of a free fall here and only (Henrik) Lundqvist stands in the way of them not making the playoffs."
-- NBC analyst Mike Milbury

While goaltending is the only thing keeping the New York Rangers afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race, it also may be what keeps the Philadelphia Flyers from reaching their full potential this season.

Those are the opinions of NHL on NBC analyst Mike Milbury, who broke down Sunday's Game of the Week (NBC, 12:30 ET) for

"I like (Henrik) Lundqvist over (Martin) Biron every day of the week," Milbury said. "Therein lies the only check for the Rangers and the reason why they can still be considered a playoff team. Since they won 10 games in October, they are a .500 team, so with the blue line and the forwards, the edge goes to the Flyers.

"I see the Rangers in a bit of a free fall here and only Lundqvist stands in the way of them not making the playoffs."

Would you expect anything but brutal honesty from the Milbury's mouth?

Milbury said the Rangers, who until Wednesday night had produced only five goals in their last five games, an 0-4-1 stretch, face a difficult task in containing the "rangy" Jeff Carter (34 goals) and the "tough as nails" Mike Richards.

"If you're (defending) Carter, you are not worried about scoring goals," Milbury said. "That's another 15 or 20 minutes of the game when the Rangers are not putting the puck on the net. Edge again goes to the Flyers."

Milbury added that Scott Hartnell, who has 40 points, has finally figured out that he has skills to match his tenacity. And any questions about Simon Gagne have been answered with his superb comeback season. Gagne, beset by concussions last season, is third on the Flyers with 48 points in 49 games.

"I'm glad that he has rebounded that way," Milbury said. "It's a credit to him. There were some issues about his level of toughness and character, but he has come through that with flying colors."

If only the Flyers had the goaltending to match their forwards and defensemen, said Milbury, who believes Philadelphia is eight points behind the New Jersey Devils in the Atlantic Division because it lacks an All-Star caliber goalie.

Biron is 32nd in the NHL with a .904 save percentage and No. 37 with a 2.96 goals-against average in 32 appearances. His backup, Antero Niittymaki, has been better with a .921 save percentage and 2.48 GAA in 23 appearances, but Biron will be the playoff goalie.

"Have they really ever had it since Pelle Lindbergh?" Milbury asked rhetorically of the Flyers' goaltending. "(Ron) Hextall had some good times and Garth Snow had a good year, but there hasn't been that rock of Gibraltar back there and they don't have it now. That's going to get in their way.

"(Biron) is an OK goaltender, but he's not an A1. The team in front of him is a pretty good team, but it's not Detroit either. They are going to need better goaltending to take them to the Promised Land."

Lundqvist, who is an All-Star, is good enough to take the Rangers there, but the team in front of him is lacking some serious punch, Milbury said. Markus

Naslund leads the Rangers with 17 goals. Only Minnesota and the Islanders have a leading scorer with fewer goals.

The Rangers are 29th in the League with 2.38 goals per game and their power play is 27th with just a 14.2-percent success rate. New York has scored only one power-play goal in its last 23 chances.

Nikolai Zherdev, who Milbury called an "enigma" and someone "who is not a bad player, but won't achieve stardom," leads the Rangers with 43 points.

"Are they a much better team than they are right now? I don't know," the analyst said. "Their blue line is average and they have tried to become a defensive-minded team in front of a world-class goaltender. But, they made their beds on Chris Drury and Scott Gomez as first-line centers."

Both Drury and Gomez signed long-term contracts on July 1, 2007. Gomez has 38 points and is a minus-9 this season. Drury, the Rangers' captain, has 34 points and is a minus-7.

"I can remember the quote from (Rangers GM Glen Sather) vividly. He said, 'We were fortunate to get not one, but two first-line centers,'" Milbury said. "The fact is it looks like neither one is a first-line center, but the bed has been made and the absence of (Jaromir) Jagr is felt by those guys. The attention is on them now instead of him, so they wind up with great goaltending, an average defense and an offensively challenged lineup. That's why they are where they are."

Eventually, Milbury said, the Rangers failures are going to cost coach Tom Renney his job.

"I think the bottle has been spun and it's starting to wind into a stop," Milbury said. "It looks like it is going to point his way."

Despite New York's struggles, Milbury said Renney has proven he's a good NHL coach. The Rangers, who went seven straight seasons without making the playoffs before the lockout, have made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals each of the past two seasons.

"He started off as the Hockey Canada guy, but no longer is he that. He's better than that," Milbury said. "He just needs better players. Sometimes when you get to this position the club is obligated to show they can't tolerate (losing) and that's fair. That's an unfair thing for the coach, but it makes a statement to the team and the fans."

No statement has been made just yet. Lundqvist is the likely reason why.

"How else do you explain the fact that they are in it?" Milbury said. "They pay attention to their PK (2nd in the NHL), which is a tribute to their team and coaches, but look at their goal scoring. Last I looked, that's the objective of the game."

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