With Ray Emery filling in for the injured Steve Mason in Game 1, and even less room for error, McDonagh's stout work at the blue line has forced Flyers coach Craig Berube to alter his game plan. And it might not be all that pretty to watch.
A gritty Flyers-Rangers playoff series: Imagine that.
In one word, Berube described the style he wants Claude Giroux, Voracek and Scott Hartnell to play against McDonagh as "unfulfilling." Unless they have a clear break to carry it in the offensive zone, Berube has instructed his players to dump the puck in New York's end, particularly in McDonagh's direction, to see whether they can pin the should-be Norris Trophy candidate behind his net and create scoring opportunities that way.
Fred Shero employed that tactic 40 years ago on Bobby Orr when the Flyers won their first Stanley Cup. But for a 2014 Flyers team that has evolved into a more possession-conscious team, this will be a marked change of pace.
"You can't let him force turnovers at the blue line, because he's just a killer," Berube said. "It's kind of an unfulfilling way for a player to play - because you don't want to give the puck up. I talked to our team today about grinding it out. Just wait for your opportunities.
"To try to beat him wide with speed, other than Voracek, [McDonagh is] probably going to win that battle a lot of times."
The Flyers' first-round series with the Rangers quite possibly will be won or lost based on their first line's willingness to adhere to Berube's demands and their success at retrieving those pucks dumped in.
The Flyers are 3-0 at Madison Square Garden when Giroux scores a goal; they are 1-12 when he does not.
This designed game plan doesn't necessarily neuter the creativity of Giroux and Voracek off the rush - it just forces them to make a conscious decision in advance of the blue line.
Berube really has no other choice, given the way McDonagh has stymied Giroux this season. Giroux, the fourth-leading scorer in the NHL, collected only two assists in the four-game season series.
He was constantly hounded by McDonagh.
Out of the 88 shifts (76 minutes, 9 seconds) Giroux played against the Rangers, McDonagh was on the ice hawking him for 67 of them (76 percent), according to ShiftChart.com. Most of the shifts Giroux lost McDonagh in the matchup game this season were in the second and third periods of the Flyers' Jan. 12 loss, when New York jumped out to a commanding, 3-0 lead in the first 10 minutes and the Rangers could take their foot off the gas pedal.
On March 26, the Flyers' captain saw only two shifts of open ice - and one was in the third period when McDonagh was in the penalty box. They have only been marginally better in the two home games (combined 11 shifts away from McDonagh), when Berube has the option of last change.
"He's a really good player," Giroux said. "I've got a lot of respect for a player like him; he is talented. For us to get offense, we're going to have to work at it. We know it isn't going to be easy."
Berube's reason for attacking McDonagh is twofold: to wear him down and also see whether the Flyers can aggravate his sore left shoulder. McDonagh, 24, sat out the last five games of the regular season after injuring his shoulder.
"I think you need to just keep making him turn all night," Berube said, referring to McDonagh pivoting back and forth when the puck is chipped behind him. "You have to make him work. [He is] going to play 30 minutes. I think the 30 minutes he plays, they have to be hard minutes. It's not only being hit, we have to grind him out, make him stay out long shifts and battle. That kind of stuff goes a long way."
Berube believes McDonagh is so aggressive in breaking up plays at the blue line because he is such a talented skater and he can recover quickly.
"His anticipation that way is very good," Berube said. "He's got great gaps in the neutral zone. He doesn't give you very much room out there. He's not too worried if a guy beats him, because he knows he can catch him."
This series, like the Flyers' season, will hinge on Giroux' stick. Like anything else in a series, this game plan is not set in stone - and can change with one shift or one stroke on a dry-erase board. For right now, though, it will be a new way of life for the top line.
"You've got to recognize when you have a chance to make the play and beat him," Voracek said. "A lot of times, he plays that very tight gap. If you want to win the game, that's how you've got to play."
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