Each Wednesday throughout the regular season Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
One of the more storied rivalries in the NHL will take center stage when the New York Rangers play host to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Wednesday Night Rivalry at Madison Square Garden.
It's a matchup hockey fans always look forward to each season because of the expected physical play and intense moments throughout.
Here are my pluses and minuses for the Rangers and Flyers entering this week's WNR, and three things you need to watch when you're tuned into NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday:
Pluses: Jakub Voracek is definitely all plus, especially when you're tied for the League scoring lead with Sidney Crosby. That kind of puts that into perspective even more. What I see with Voracek is an assertiveness with the puck on his stick, and when he has the puck on his stick, he's very assertive and very decisive in what he wants to do. That goes a long way because in knowing what you want to do and where you want to go when you have the puck, that forces defensemen into making quick decisions. It's one thing to defend when you're comfortable as an opposing player, and it's another to defend under duress and forced to react to quick decision-making by the opposing players. Factor in his size (6-foot-2, 214 pounds), strength and skill, how he protects the puck with his body, he's a special player. I remember Ken Hitchcock telling me years ago when he was coach in Columbus with Voracek that this kid had all the tools to become a star in League. When you watch him now, he's become a star.
I do feel that goalie Steve Mason has found his game again. If you look at his last five-game segment, his save percentages have been great and he's cooking with gas, so that's a plus. At the start of the season, he wasn't playing at the same level as he was at the end of last season. Mason had a huge breakout season last year under [goalie coach] Jeff Reese and I thought Reese did a great job with him. I will say that when you play on teams that are sloppy defensively, it's not always easy to hold positioning and stay true to the angle, and that's one of the things Mason was struggling with early on. He was cheating a lot and wasn't honoring the puck angles, and that's understandable to a point; it still falls on you as a goalie but if you're playing a 2-on-1 and you're not sure if your man is going to take the pass away you get caught in between and begin cheating. But to Mason's credit, he's beginning to understand.
Minus: I'm concerned with Philadelphia's defensive detail. I think their team defense really improved under Craig Berube last year but it still gets sloppy at times. I know the penalty kill has struggled, but there's a correlation between your 5-on-5 game and how you defend and your penalty kill. If you look at the Flyers and the Los Angeles Kings, for example, and recall the Kings run last year. I talked to [Darryl] Sutter during that time and he told me how great their penalty kill was and how that helped their team. When you talked to players on the Kings and they said the exact same thing so typically, when your PK is hot, usually there's a correlation with how you defend 5-on-5 and on the PK. The two kind of go hand in hand for me where Philly is concerned and they need to be better.
Pluses: I like Rick Nash and his assertiveness this year. There's no indecision anymore or there isn't any "I'm not sure" or "I'm caught in between." He's not settling on 30-foot wrist shots from the boards or outside the faceoff circle. He's challenging defensemen when he has the puck, and when he doesn't have the puck he's still challenging people to get there first and be around the net. There's a tenacity, intensity and willingness for him to be first to the spot and to get to the spot by paying the price. I didn't see that in his game last year and I've known Rick since he played minor hockey in Toronto. It's not even that, because I see him doing even more than when he was in Columbus right now. In Columbus, he was able to beat a lot of guys on isolation and 1-on-1 battles and with his size and skill, just juke a guy and go by him. Now he's attacking the middle of the ice a lot more and going to the front of the net a lot more with or without the puck.
|TALE OF THE TAPE: FLYERS-RANGERS
|7-7-2 (6th, Metropolitan)
||7-7-4 (4th, Metropolitan)
||Head-to-Head Regular-Season Record
||Streak vs. Opponent
|0-8-0 @ New York
||Home/Road Streak vs. Opponent
||8-0-0 vs. Flyers
||Stanley Cup Championships
||Hockey Hall of Fame Members
||Most Famous Alumnus
||Hart Trophy Winners
|John Vanbiesbrouck (1998-2000)
||Best Player in Common
||John Vanbiesbrouck (1981-93)
I also like Martin St. Louis, even though he hasn't had the production to the same extent, but I like the chemistry between Marty and Nash when they do play together. I like the fact Nash and St. Louis push each other to be better.
Minus: The inconsistent play and the fact that with that inconsistency, Henrik Lundqvist hasn't been able to bail them out the way he can always bail them out, and that’s been tough. Hank has played at a super-human level for so long, and he certainly can and I'm sure he will, but it's just tougher for him to regain it and maintain it when they're playing the way they are. Henrik is good enough to be an eraser for the Rangers, but there just hasn't been a six- or seven-game stretch where he's been able to do it, and that's frustrating to him because he expects to play that way all the time.
Here's the thing, when you go to the Stanley Cup Final, it's a special team whether you win or not. The reality is that Rangers team last season was a special group. They had a lot of guys who were unsung guys and they lost a lot of depth players. You realize what Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot meant to that special team. So you're missing some key guys to start the season, and while you do bring in some good young players to try and offset that, and those young guys are getting an opportunity, but say what you want, the Mats Zuccarello, Derek Brassard and Pouliot line may have been their most consistent line last year. You lost Brad Richards, and while he may not be putting up 85 points anymore is he struggling if he puts up 50-60 points? The thing is, you still lose that production so who's compensating for that? There are a lot of key guys who are no longer there and I still don't think the Rangers have hit their rhythm.
They still haven't hit that level of consistency that I believe they're capable of. Also, the Rangers are a fast team, but they are a fast team that doesn't always play fast. I know one thing, the Tampa Bay Lightning are playing fast every night. The Rangers' hallmark is their speed, so if they're not playing fast and that's their key attribute then it's kind of a different team. When the Rangers hit their stride last year, they were flying and using the width of the rink to make plays. They weren't just going up the middle of the ice; there was wide speed, diagonal speed and not just relying on the length of the rink to make plays.
Three things to watch
1. Intensity. This rivalry always runs white-hot, so this is something I'll be watching.
2. How will Rangers coach Alain Vigneault handle his line combinations? Especially among his bottom six because he's still trying to develop chemistry. To his credit, Vigneault plays those guys, and I'm a believer in being a four-line team in this league. He did that in Vancouver when he was coach, but he didn't have in Vancouver what he had on the fourth line last year with the Rangers. He gave that fourth line a lot of confidence last year, and that played a big part in the Rangers getting into the playoffs and getting on that nice run. I'm interested to see how Vigneault handles his lines in an effort to find consistency with this group.
3. Will the Flyers play a physical game and will the Rangers play a speed game? Really, that's what both those teams have to do. When I say physical, I mean playing tenacious around the net. The Flyers usually play the Rangers hard. Don't be surprised if Wayne Simmonds has a big game against the Rangers.