It's hard to believe that the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers haven't met in the playoffs since 1997, when the Flyers dispatched the Blueshirts in five games in the Eastern Conference finals. Maybe it's because the level of enmity and nastiness between the bitter division foes reflects the type of hatred usually borne out of vicious playoff battles. Regardless, the regular season has provided enough bad blood and that will only escalate once the puck drops on the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden. As one Western Conference scout remarked when asked this week to handicap the potential series: "It will be a war."
Rangers: Ryan McDonagh
Though Ryan McDonagh was held out of Saturday's season finale against the Montreal Canadiens by head coach Alain Vigneault, the 24-year-old declared himself 100 percent recovered from the left shoulder injury sustained April 1. McDonagh has not played since taking a late-game hit from Vancouver's Alex Burrows, but will receive an extra three days of practice to get back into playoff shape before the first round begins. His return to form is of critical importance to the Rangers, who have relied on McDonagh as the team's top defenseman all season. He leads the team in ice time with an average of 24:49 per game and leads all Rangers defensemen with 14 goals and 43 points. Most importantly, he adds a steady shutdown presence on the team's back end. McDonagh has plenty of experience going against opposing teams' top lines and that will surely be the task he draws against the Flyers' dynamic top trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell.
Flyers: Steve Mason
The Flyers netminder did not play the third period of Philly's 4-3 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday after a collision at the end of the second period shook him up, forcing backup netminder Ray Emery to replace him between the pipes for the remainder of the game. Though Flyers coach Craig Berube said Mason was held out for precautionary reasons and will be ready for Game 1, this will no doubt be a storyline to monitor. Even before Mason suffered the upper-body injury in Saturday's game, goaltending was a question mark for the Flyers -- particularly Mason's lack of playoff success. The 25-year-old Mason has appeared in only four NHL playoff games -- during his rookie season with the Columbus Blue Jackets back in 2009 -- and he lost all four. In his following three-plus seasons with Columbus, he hovered around the .900 save-percentage mark. And though he has been better this season, earning a three-year extension from the Flyers back in January, his .917 save percentage still leaves something to be desired. Interesting stat: Emery is 7-2-0 with a 1.87 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and two shutouts in 10 career games against the Rangers. Just sayin'.
Hero In Waiting
Rangers: Mats Zuccarello
If not for McDonagh's yeoman work on the back end and Henrik Lundqvist's steadiness in the second half, one could make a case for Mats Zuccarello as the Rangers' most valuable player. He has, at least, been the most pleasant surprise. Zuccarello eclipsed last season's numbers with career highs in goals (19), assists (40) and points (59). Perhaps more important once the playoffs begin is that the pesky little Norwegian plays a lot bigger than his 5-foot-6 frame and has cultivated an ability to antagonize with the best of them. In a chippy, physical series with the Flyers, Zuccarello will be making his presence known in and around the crease and in opponents' ears. He has also forged a strong chemistry with center Derick Brassard and winger Benoit Pouliot, so look for that line to be pivotal for the Rangers. Pouliot entered Saturday's action with a seven-game point streak and can also wreak havoc around the net.
Flyers: Jakub Voracek
Of course, captain Claude Giroux is earning well-deserved recognition for his role in helping a dramatic turnaround this season for the Flyers, but linemate Jakub Voracek might be the player to watch. The 24-year-old winger tallied twice and collected an assist in the Flyers' 4-3 overtime win against the Penguins on Saturday afternoon and remains one of the team's biggest threats on the power play, which led the league with a 25.2 percent success rate on the road. Twenty-two of Voracek's 61 points came on the man-advantage, plus he recorded six points in the last five games of the season. Another unsung hero for the Flyers? Wayne Simmonds, who has to be among the top-five underrated players in the league. His long, rangy build and strong net presence have allowed him to rack up a team-leading 15 goals on the power play in what has been a career year for the 25-year-old forward. Simmonds, who has 29 goals and 60 points this season, could certainly give New York a lot of trouble down low with the type of pressure he'll put on Lundqvist and the Rangers' defense.
Rangers: Forward depth
The Rangers have the clear edge in the goaltending department, with franchise wins leader and former Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist. You can make a pretty irrefutable case their defense is superior, as well. But the Rangers are outclassed up front, especially with the depth Philly boasts in terms of offensive talent. How the Blueshirts fare in the first round might very well hinge on the production of their star players -- Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. Since being acquired by the Rangers last month in a blockbuster deal at the trade deadline, St. Louis has struggled. The defending Art Ross champ went 13 games before notching his first goal as a Ranger and, despite a three-assist effort against Carolina on Tuesday night, has managed only eight points in 19 games since leaving Tampa. Nash has always been a streaky player, and unfortunately for the Rangers, he went cold last spring. Nash was more or less invisible in the team's second-round series against the Boston Bruins, failing to have any sort of impact in the best-of-seven set. Richards is having a bounce-back season and Stepan has been racking up points since returning from the Olympics. Both centers will have to sustain such play to compete with the Flyers.
Let's face it: The Flyers have not felt the same way about their back end since losing Chris Pronger in the 2011-12 season. An imposing blue line is key for any playoff team looking to make a deep run and that remains the Flyers' most glaring weakness. Not only do they miss Pronger's size and snarl, but they lack the type of strong-skating, puck-moving blueliners who can activate and generate offense from their own end. Mark Streit is a solid veteran with offensive abilities, but his production has steadily declined in recent years. Andrew MacDonald was a sturdy trade-deadline acquisition, but he alone is not the answer to the team's defensive shortcomings. Kimmo Timonen has had a post-Olympic resurgence, but you have to wonder what sort of impact a physical and grinding playoff series will have on the 39-year-old's effectiveness. And Nicklas Grossman has reportedly been playing on a hobbled ankle for some time. Without the sort of shutdown presence of a Zdeno Chara or an elite puck-mover like Drew Doughty, the Flyers are lacking on the back end.
It will be a black-and-blue-and-bloody series, but the Rangers' goaltending will ultimately give them the upper hand. Rangers in 7