Game Preview: Rangers host Flyers on Rivalry Night

Flyers forward Zac Rinaldo delivers a big hit on Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein in Game 1.  AP Photo/Bruce Bennett

Flyers forward Zac Rinaldo delivers a big hit on Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein in Game 1.
AP Photo/Bruce Bennett

Eight days before Thanksgiving, the Rangers and Flyers renew acquaintances. The first meeting of the season is featured on NBC Sports Network for Rivalry Night with a late 8 PM start. If it’s anything like the one they played against the Red Wings two weeks ago, that would be a welcome change. Ironically, the bitter rivals also see each other for a home-and-home series 11/28-29. The other meeting isn’t until the end of February.

Considering where these two teams are in the standings, the next week is crucial. The Rangers are fourth in the Metro with 18 points. The Flyers rank sixth with 16 points in two fewer games played. Each club has 7 wins but Philadelphia has 7 ROW compared to the Rangers’ 6. When you don’t win games, it adds up. The Blueshirts have won only two all month. They need a good finish.

For the Blueshirts, Lee Stempniak is out for tonight. Jesper Fast goes back in and will play on the fourth line. He hasn’t done much. Two-thirds of that line have zero points. You can’t expect much from Tanner Glass but it’s also hurting Dominic Moore. Unlike the cynics, I have cooled off on burying Glass. You can’t blame him for everything. The third line isn’t great by any stretch. Not with Kevin Hayes playing out of position. He shows glimpses but can’t be relied on in the faceoff circle. For all the hoopla, Anthony Duclair has 1 goal. The lack of production has affected Carl Hagelin. Brad Richards isn’t easily replaced.

With kids, Alain Vigneault must continue to show patience. It takes time. However, if they continue to fail when does the organization give J.T. Miller another look? Wasn’t that supposed to be the plan? When it comes to development, you can’t trust this team. Eventually, they must have a third line that produces. It’s way too reliant on the top six. With Chris Kreider struggling and Mats Zuccarello off to a slow start, there’s not much consistency. Where would they be without Rick Nash? A thought better left unsaid.

Cam Talbot gets the call tonight. He really needs a big game. Last year, he was dependable and even carried the load for a stretch when Henrik Lundqvist was un-King like. However, that team was different. They played strong in front of him. Subtracting key cogs Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot and Richards has its downside. They didn’t have to replace Stralman but Glen Sather did by signing Dan Boyle. Boyle was basically thrown overboard by Vigneault. Now, he plays a bigger role in Tampa.

So much of how this team plays hinges on the system. They’ve spent a good chunk trading chances and chasing the puck. Unable to generate a sustained forecheck, it’s allowed opponents easy outs to go on the attack. The mixed defense pairs without Ryan McDonagh and lack of forwards coming back has contributed to a lackluster start. The good news is McDonagh is on target about two weeks away. Unless the effort level changes, it doesn’t guarantee anything.

The Flyers are without captain Claude Giroux, who has an injured ankle. They still are formidable with Jakub Voracek tied for the league lead in scoring with 26 points. Despite his team’s inconsistencies, Voracek is red hot. He’s on a 10-game point streak with five goals and 14 assists for 19 points. A ridiculous clip that’s featured 8 multi-point games. More impressive, he only has eight power play points with five coming in two recent games. For his career, he done alright posting 14 points in 18 games against the Rangers.

With Giroux out, the Rangers will key on Voracek. Figure Brayden Schenn see major minutes. The Flyers also boast dangerous power forward Wayne Simmonds. After a hot start, he’s cooled considerably. Six of his seven goals came in October. But he did pick up one in a win over Colorado. Simmonds is a tough match-up due to his size and physicality. He always gives our D fits. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have their work cut out. Five of Simmonds’ seven career goals against us have come on the power play. The best advice is to stay out of the penalty box. The man-advantage is where the Flyers do most of their damage. They are tied for fourth at 24.6 percent. The Rangers penalty kill is 18th (79.7 percent).

Sean Couturier is a good two-way center who kills penalties. His offense still is inconsistent. But he shouldn’t be underestimated. Matt Read has picked it up lately with three points over the last four. He’s streaky and also capable. The Flyers are missing Michael Raffl (6-1-7 in 12 GP). They need more from Vinny Lecavalier and Jason Akeson. Of course, they have agitator Zac Rinaldo. The Rangers must be aware of him. He will deliver big hits and try to get underneath their skin.

This also marks the return of Michael Del Zotto. The former first round pick had an up and down career. After flourishing under John Tortorella, he was given up on by Vigneault. Eventually, Del Zotto was traded to Nashville for Kevin Klein. A move that actually benefited the Rangers. While Del Zotto failed to impress in Music City, Klein became a solid complement to John Moore. Playing third pair, he was a solid contributor. Due to injuries, he’s been asked to play more minutes and has been our best defenseman even pacing the club with three goals.

After the Predators declined to offer Del Zotto a contract, he went a long time as a free agent before the Flyers signed him. They didn’t have much choice with Kimmo Timonen out for the season. Following a predictable shaky start, he’s been better of late. Over his last 10 games, Del Zotto has two goals and three assists with a plus-six rating. He hasn’t been a minus over the last nine going plus-seven. He’s also been physical. His 43 hits lead all Flyers defensemen. He’s blocked 26 shots and has only been penalized twice (4 PIM).

Considering all the criticism he received, it’ll be interesting to see how Del Zotto responds to what will be a hostile environment. The boos will be loud. I also wonder what chants are in store for him since porn star Lisa Ann called him out on Twitter. It could be ugly. Don’t forget this is a super sensitive player. Will he let it to get to him? He might need some good earplugs.

The Flyers are starting Steve Mason. After a good showing in last year’s first round, he’s only won 3 times in 10 starts. Amazingly, he still has a .911 save percentage speaking to how bad his team is. The Rangers must move him laterally. That requires an actual attack unlike Monday’s “disaster.” They had an optional morning skate. Vigneault is the opposite of Tortorella. Given all the disappointment, I expect a good effort.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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