GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The New York Rangers can breathe easy knowing they will have defenseman Ryan McDonagh back in the lineup when their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers begins. But the first day of practice leading up to Game 1 finished with questions about one of the team’s key forwards.
Top-six center Derick Brassard left the ice Tuesday in apparent pain while the team was doing special-teams work at its practice facility and did not return. Coach Alain Vigneault did not provide an update on the 26-year-old’s status.
He did seem optimistic, however, that Brassard will be available when the puck drops to begin the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
“I would say yes,” Vigneault said.
Brassard has been a critical component of one of the Rangers’ most productive lines, a trio that also includes Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello. The three players have combined for nine points in the last four games heading into the postseason. The Rangers are already without one of their top-six forwards with Chris Kreider sidelined indefinitely with a left hand injury.
Balance up front will be absolutely vital against a Flyers team heralded for its forward depth. Philadelphia boasts one of the most dangerous top lines in the NHL with Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell, and also has the likes of Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read and Vincent Lecavalier. The Flyers have seven players with 20 or more goals, including defenseman Mark Streit.
But Philadelphia has an injury concern of its own, with starting goaltender Steve Mason's status for Game 1 unknown. Mason left the Flyers’ 4-3 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday with an upper-body injury after a second-period collision and did not return to the game. Though Flyers head coach Craig Berube sounded confident immediately afterward that Mason would be ready to go by Thursday, that optimism has waned in recent days.
Mason did spend a limited amount of time on the ice with the Flyers on Tuesday but did not speak to the media. Berube told reporters in Philadelphia that he's not sure if Mason will play.
With the Rangers already enjoying an overwhelming edge in the goaltending department with former Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist in net, Mason’s potential absence could have significant ramifications. However, backup Ray Emery has done quite well against the Blueshirts in the past, with a 7-2-0 record and two shutouts in 10 career appearances against New York.
Regardless of who is in the lineup for both teams, this series is guaranteed to deliver the type of saltiness and snarl that makes playoff hockey so compelling.
The Rangers and Flyers split their four games in the regular season. And given the teams' prior history -- no playoff meetings since 1997, but an abundance of high-intensity, hate-filled regular-season games -- that will only make the intensity more palpable.
“A team you don’t see all that often, sometimes it takes a little longer to build the animosity,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “We’re very familiar with each other. I don’t think we need to build any of that up. It should be a good start.”
The Flyers possess one of the better power plays in the league, a unit that ranks first in the NHL with a 25.2 percent success rate. So no matter how often frustrations escalate, the Rangers must focus on trying to keep their reactions in check.
“I think discipline is going to be key, because they have a really good power play,” said veteran center Brad Richards, who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004. “I think our power play can be dangerous also, so I think both teams are going to want to keep those power plays on the bench.
“After that, it’s a matter of how high you want to raise your level with every game,” Richards said. “We’ve learned that in the past here, and for guys that have been to the playoffs, they know that. Every game gets faster. Every game gets harder. Hopefully we can ride that momentum and get better as the series goes on.”