NEW YORK -- Wednesday’s match between two bitter division rivals, the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, could very well be a first-round playoff preview, and their enmity certainly would not disappoint.
There will be plenty of storylines surrounding both club’s resident stars and goaltenders, but with the history of the two clubs, a best-of-seven set will probably hinge on the battles within the trenches.
And the Flyers boast a venerable asset in that regard.
For as much as Claude Giroux has rightfully been reaping credit for the Flyers’ dramatic turnaround, a valiant effort that may push his name into Hart Trophy consideration, there is a cohort quietly having a career year.
Wayne Simmonds may be one of the league’s most underrated players, with an impressive 24-goal, 54-point campaign he brings into Wednesday’s action. Though Giroux is pacing the field in scoring (24 goals, 50 assists), Simmonds ranks second among the Flyers, ahead of even Jakub Voracek. His contributions on the power play and in the defensive end have been absolutely vital in helping the Flyers solidify their position for a playoff spot with 11 games remaining.
The 25-year-old Toronto native has five goals in his past five games, while the Flyers have secured eight of 10 possible points in the standings during that span.
"He’s been a very good player for us. One of our most consistent guys," Flyers coach Craig Berube said Wednesday after the team's morning skate at Madison Square Garden.
Said one Western Conference scout: "Tough, hard-nosed and plays the game the right way. Good quick stick at net front, especially on the power-play."
While the Flyers still have some question marks lingering -- defense and goaltending chief among them, and a lack of even-strength success -- special teams has undoubtedly been the club’s biggest strength. The Flyers rank in the top 10 in both their power play and penalty kill and boast the league’s best power-play unit on the road with a dazzling 25.8 percent.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said it is one of the most difficult to defend, with the elite skill they have up front and the precision with which they move the puck. They often look for that extra pass, he said, and it can be challenging for an opposing goalie while trying to track the play.
"They have a lot of skill we have to respect," Lundqvist said.
Simmonds is an integral part of that unit, with his relentless pressure down low and tireless effort to battle in front. His 13 power-play goals are second-most in the NHL; the only player he trails is Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin.
"One of the best I’ve seen around the net," Berube told ESPN.com.
Simmonds, at 6-foot-2, 183 pounds, is not the quintessential net-front presence player, either. More lanky than hulking, he is still supremely effective.
"I didn’t realize he was that skinny until I got here," defenseman Andrew MacDonald told ESPN.com.
MacDonald saw more of Simmonds than he liked in front of the net when he was playing as one of the Islanders’ top penalty-killers, so he has firsthand experience about what it is like to battle with him.
"It’s just the ability to shield the puck, be strong on his own skates. He can pull the puck from so far and protect it. He uses his body so well down low," MacDonald said.
Simmonds believes it’s actually his unorthodox build that helps him in the dirty areas of the ice.
"I’ve got really long arms, so if someone’s boxing me out, sometimes I can still get that extra inch or two inches, just enough to get my stick on the puck," he told ESPN.com. "People may see I’m not the heaviest or the biggest guy, but I think I use that to my advantage."
Simmonds said he studied the way Ryan Smyth and Michal Handzus, his former teammates in Los Angeles, mastered that net-front element and wanted to incorporate that in his game. He stayed after practice working with Smyth and he would pick Handzus’ brain for tips. They told him to stay patient and keep going to where the puck was headed.
Simmonds took that to heart and seems to relish the type of nasty battles that persist in and around the crease.
"I’ve always played in the hard areas," he said, the multiple scars across the bridge of his nose and forehead a good indication he’s telling the truth. "It’s obviously a tough position to play; not a lot of guys want to go to the front of the net and get hacked and whacked and stepped on and all that other stuff. That’s just the player I am. I’ve got to be in the thick of it."
Teammates are more than happy with that willingness, especially because it opens other options for them on the man-advantage. Seven of Voracek’s 20 goals this season have come on the power play. So he, too, knows the sort of effect Simmonds can have creating opportunities for others.
"It’s huge because they have to respect him," Voracek said. "He’s so good in front of the net and around the crease, especially with [Scott Hartnell] coming in as well. They’re very gritty. Around the net, [opposing goaltenders] got to try to take him away or else he can burn them.
"He’s been tremendous this year."