Faceoff: Who wins out, Rangers or Flyers?
Editor's note: The regular season wraps up Sunday, and ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun look at the teams on the bubble and what they need to do to qualify for the postseason dance and/or playoff position.
Scott Burnside: Hello, my friend. Welcome to the last weekend of the regular season. Many will bemoan the mediocrity of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, but I prefer to look at the drama set to unfold this weekend even if all the teams left looking for playoff spots at the bottom of the bracket are in many ways junk.
With Montreal losing in Carolina on Thursday and the Bruins coming up big at home against Buffalo, it puts even more emphasis on the home-and-home clash between the Flyers and the New York Rangers on Friday (MSG) and Sunday (Philadelphia). The Rangers need to win both games, at least one in regulation, to overtake the Flyers or have a chance of reeling in either Boston or Montreal. They will face a Flyers team that has played well of late and may get Jeff Carter back in the lineup. Henrik Lundqvist will have to be at his best, and if he is, it will put more pressure on Brian Boucher in the Philly goal. Should be a ton of fun.
Pierre LeBrun: Playoff hockey before the playoffs. I spoke with Flyers forward Daniel Briere on Thursday, and you could sense the excitement at the other end of the phone line.
"What I like about the situation is that we put ourselves in control of our own destiny," Briere told me. "But there's no doubt that this is a great weekend to be a hockey player and to be a fan of hockey. It's coming down to the last two games, but hopefully we can close it out Friday night in New York. We're all pretty excited. These are the games we live to play hockey for. It should be a fun two-game series with the Rangers."
Yes, they are in control of their own destiny, but you have to wonder how such a talented team as the Flyers is in this position to begin with. The injuries to their two starting goalies are the most obvious reason, but you can't cover it all with that. Even Briere admitted he's surprised they're in this spot in the last weekend of the regular season.
"Nobody expected us to be in this position, not even ourselves," Briere said. "The good thing is that we know we have a dangerous team and a team that can do a lot of damage. Everything can change. If we can get on a roll, play well and hopefully get into the playoffs with confidence and make it happen in the playoffs, nobody is going to remember how we played in November, December and March. That's the great thing about hockey -- you always have a chance to redeem yourself. We have to take it. This will be our last chance for the season."
Of course, the same holds true for the Rangers. They've got a shot at redeeming what has been a frustrating season for their fans.
Burnside: What I like about this two-game dance is that both teams are playing pretty well right now. The Flyers came up with big wins against Detroit and Toronto last week, and the Rangers -- apart from a meltdown against Buffalo -- have won six of eight and have points in seven of their past eight. If, like a playoff series, this comes down to goaltending, it's hard not to give the edge to the Rangers, even with the Flyers' best goal-producer (Carter) perhaps jumping back into the fray Friday. And if I'm right and the Flyers do bow out of the playoffs on this final weekend, it will be an indictment of GM Paul Holmgren's short-sightedness in failing to adequately shore up his goaltending at the trade deadline.
LeBrun: I think you're being a little harsh on Boucher. The guy didn't play for like three months before getting thrown back into the frying pan after Michael Leighton's injury. So yeah, he looked rusty for a while, but he's been solid of late and you can't discount that.
"Just look at the last three games we've played. We lost 1-0 to Montreal, where he kept us in the game; we beat Detroit 4-3 and then the shutout in Toronto," Briere said of Boucher. "His last three games have been great, and hopefully he's getting on a roll and getting more confidence. He's certainly given us confidence, as well. He's a good guy, and good things happen to good people."
Before we leave, what about the Habs? They are certainly making it interesting for their devoted following in La Belle Province. If the Rangers win Friday night, the Canadiens face a must-win situation Saturday night. They host the rival Toronto Maple Leafs on "Hockey Night in Canada" with the Blue and White having a chance to make this their own little Stanley Cup final. They'd love a shot at ruining Montreal's season.
Burnside: Yes, a disappointing turn for the Habs, who I thought were ready to separate themselves from the pack. And you have to hand it to Boston. No Marc Savard, no Dennis Seidenberg, Zdeno Chara wearing a cage thanks to a broken nose, and they gut one out against a good Buffalo team to put even more pressure on the Rangers and Flyers.
One final word on this home-and-home tilt: Look for the Flyers to secure a playoff spot if they can stay out of the box. They are the runaway leaders in minor penalties taken this season. The Rangers, while not necessarily potent on the power play, would love to take advantage of an unruly Flyers team (whoever heard of such a thing?) if emotions get the better of the Broad Street boys. So how do you think it unfolds? I say when the dust clears the Rangers sneak in and the Flyers are wondering where it all went wrong, despite your valiant defense of Boucher.
LeBrun: I say the Rangers give the Flyers their money's worth, but Philadelphia hangs on for the eighth and final playoff spot. Care for a Caps-Flyers first-round series? I'm sure Washington would enjoy getting some revenge for its 2008 first-round loss to the Flyers.
OK, my friend have a good weekend and enjoy your travels on the playoff trail over the next two months. I know I will!