Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Flyers-Rangers: NHL Playoffs: Game 7

When it comes to sports excitement, few things can match what is about to take place in the NHL opening round between our beloved Philadelphia Flyers and the rival New York Rangers.

Game 7 elicits all sorts of images, all involving the drama of an entire season of hard work by players, and often just as hard rooting by fans, coming down to one single game. You win, your season continues. Lose, it's all over in heart-breaking fashion.

Here in America, Major League Baseball is joined by both the NHL and NBA in deciding the majority of it's important playoff series with a best-of-7 games format. Teams play one another, alternating home fields, rinks, and courts, until one or the other team has won four times. The most exciting of these series leave the combatants tied at 3 games each, leading to a decisive, winner-take-all 7th game.

That's where the Flyers and Rangers find themselves tonight at Madison Square Garden. The Flyers hard-fought victory by a 5-2 score last night at the Wells Fargo Center evened up the series at 3-3, forcing this decisive game between these longtime rivals who, despite playing in the same division, incredibly have not met in the playoffs for 17 long years.

The Flyers-Rangers series has become known as "Broadway vs Broad Street" during the nearly 40 years that the two franchise have been divisional rivals. The Rangers are one of the NHL's 'Original 6' teams, having been around since the league's inception. The Flyers came along in the first expansion back in 1967. They have met 10 previous times in the post-season, with Philly winning the last three times and now holding a 6-4 advantage.

For Flyers fans, the biggest of these previous meetings between the two clubs was also the only other one to go a full 7 games, the very first one all the way back in 1974. The Flyers and Rangers met that season in the semi-finals, with the winner of that decisive 7th game set to move into the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston. The Flyers would prevail in a dramatic 4-3 game that would send them on to the Finals, where they ultimately would win their first-ever Stanley Cup.

The teams would also play a decisive playoff game in the 1986 playoffs. That was the season in which the Flyers tragically had lost young all-star goalie Pelle Lindbergh in a drunk-driving auto accident. With Lindbergh gone, the Flyers rallied behind backup goalie Bob Froese and won their division anyway. The playoff meeting with the Rangers was a best-of-5 divisional semi-final, and the two teams pushed to a decisive 5th game which the Rangers dominated by 5-2 to take the series.

The last meeting in 1997 was important in that it came in the Eastern Conference Finals, with the teams again as back in 1974 fighting to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. The series was a marquee matchup between the Flyers, led by young superstar Eric Lindros, and the Rangers, led by veteran legend Wayne Gretzky. The Flyers would win this one by an easy 4-1 to take the series, but would be swept in the Finals by Detroit.

Two years ago, on January 2nd, 2012, the two teams met in another NHL centerpiece game, the 2012 NHL Winter Classic. Played outdoors at Citizens Bank Park, the Rangers prevailed in a 3-2 game. Perhaps just as entertaining, especially for the fans, was the 3-1 victory for the Flyers in the "Alumni Game" featuring an outstanding performance by 66-year old Flyers goaltending legend Bernie Parent.

Whether it has been Bobby Clarke vs Brad Park in 1974, or Mark Howe vs John Vanbiesbrouck in 1986, or Eric Lindros vs Wayne Gretzky in 1997, the Flyers-Rangers battles have often been important, highlighted by the ever-present Philly-New York rivalry born of the two cities passionate fans living less than a hundred miles and less than a 2-hour drive from one another.

Tonight, it will be Game 7 of the 2014 NHL Playoffs opening round. One team will emerge victorious and advance to meet the Pittsburgh Penguins in the next round, taking a step forward in the battle for the Stanley Cup. For the loser, the season will end abruptly. They will pack up and head home tomorrow. We don't know which team that will be, but we do already know the picture of how it will all end: as is unique to the NHL, it will end with the Flyers and Rangers shaking hands at center ice.

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