The standing ovation the Flyers received at the end of last night's first period was not entirely deserved. Through 20 minutes they'd been pretty well pushed around, getting outpossessed at even strength to the tune of 18 shot attempts to just 11 (37.9 percent). That, in hockey, doesn't sound like much, but it's actually a ton. The Rangers controlled the puck at an elite level, but the Flyers had their power-play goal, and that was the difference. Clap away.
The standing ovation the Flyers received at the end of the second period was not nearly enough. The way they answered the Rangers, turning the tables in terms of both corsi and their ability to heap on three more goals — the last two being particularly deflating — was spectacular. Wayne Simmonds scored the first, second, and fourth goals. They also narrowed the corsi gap to 34-31 Rangers, which was a huge step forward for a team that spent a lot of time up by two goals.
About halfway through the game, it was apparent that Game 7 would no longer only be "if necessary."
Unfortunately for New York, the already-decided game still had about 30 minutes to go, and during that time the Flyers were able to sow seeds that could be harvested within a day. For the Rangers and coach Alain Vigneault, this had to feel sickeningly familiar.
The Rangers, for their part, could dominate possession all they wanted, as is the wont of Vigneault teams, but they were constantly being set back by the uncharacteristically awful play of their top defensive pairing, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. Girardi was directly responsible for the first and third goals, and was caught loitering nowhere in particular on the fourth. Rick Nash continued to be a big presence in piling up shots, which is extremely important from what that quote attributed to Wayne Gretzky (and also a bunch of math compiled over the last seven years) would have you believe, but the menace to his game was lacking, as it has been for the entirety of the series. Martin St. Louis was trying to be too cute. Henrik Lundqvist was being outdueled by Steve Mason, which is a tough state of affairs in which to find oneself. Lundqvist, one of the three or four best goalies in the world, didn't return for the third, probably out of embarrassment, having stopped just 19 of 23 shots. Mason, facing the same number, was unsullied.
Through 30 minutes, the Flyers' win expectancy sat at around 86 percent, and 10 minutes later the mathematical probability of a Ranger win was at around one percent. With the Flyers sitting comfortably on that lead, they could free themselves to do things other than "try to win."
Those things included hitting the Rangers a lot. They could be fearless in this regard, because the Rangers' power play, which started the series three for eight, has been flaccid. Nash and St. Louis and Brad Richards and Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin and Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello are, on paper, pretty potent first and second PP units, but they're 0-fer on their last 20 man-advantages. All that hitting, they say, takes a toll. That's why you want big bodies who are intent on playing "heavy hockey" at all times. Because over seven games, you just get worn down by it. So the Flyers hit and hit, and took penalties on occasion. There were fights and all that kind of stuff, as you might expect. Message-sending, you see. Very important.
Especially when Game 7 follows Game 6 by just 23½ hours. Another quirk of the NHL schedule, one which doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, makes the final game of the series to a back-to-back with the penultimate one, and that put the Rangers in a tough position. With the game out of hand, the Flyers could finish their checks while the Rangers could ill afford to do the same; They needed to come back in the game, and as a consequence of the score, were being allowed to fool around with the puck as much as possible.
The reason Vigneault should have been nervous was that he's seen this before. He'd been chased out of Vancouver, so soon after coming within a game of the Stanley Cup, by two atrocious first-round exits in a row, in five games and then in four, despite the fact that his team was an "advanced" stats darling. The 2013 Canucks were 12th in the league in corsi share with the score close. and the year before that they were eighth. Likewise, his new team finished this season at sixth, and looked a pretty good candidate to knock off the 23rd-ranked Flyers with ease.
It's a little different for the Rangers, and yet very much the same. Under John Tortorella the last two years, they've gotten into the third and second rounds before bowing out in ugly fashion. Both times they appeared tired from previous series that had gone seven games. In the Rangers' last 12 games they have played with a series lead, they are 0-12.
From New York's standpoint, this series should have been over already. The Flyers were forced to play their backup goaltender three times in the series, and none of their best players had — until Simmonds's outburst — really put together a big game. The Rangers should have been able to stand on the Flyers' throats days ago. Instead, they're back in their own building after being humiliated and physically punished, and that same old doubt that they can make things happen in the postseason has to be creeping in for players and coach alike. A single game, like the one tonight, or even a single series doesn't (and shouldn't) define a team or coach. But when they're piling up like this, well, you really might have to start asking questions about their efficacy.
It doesn't matter what the numbers say or what bloggers think. Sports is always going to be a results-oriented business that boils down to wins and losses. Fair, unfair, doesn't matter. Those concepts don't enter into the discussion. Hell, people are already trying to run Tortorella out of Vancouver because in one season with Eddie Lack as his starting goaltender, backing up an aging and oft-injured core, he didn't make the playoffs. As though making the playoffs and getting creamed in the first round would have been appreciably better (in terms of anything but optics) than missing them altogether.
If things go sideways tonight, or even in the next round against Pittsburgh, Vigneault and the Rangers are going to have to answer the same old questions once again. Especially because their chances to go deep into these playoffs were bolstered significantly with the addition of St. Louis at the deadline, swapping in flash, experience, and production for outgoing captain Ryan Callahan's grit, leadership, and dubious on-ice contributions. That move presumably gave the team all the tools it needed for a deep run. With their pieces and their peripheral stats, anything short of a conference finals appearance would be a disappointment.
And yet here we are again, the Rangers at the precipice. Even with a win tonight (and they're 5-0 in their last five Game 7s at home), they'll be tired and sore from a series that shouldn't have been as hard as they made it. Vigneault was brought in to get this team over the hump; instead, it's looking like the same old Rangers.