In theory, things shouldn't get harder for the New York Rangers now. In practice, they almost certainly will.
Having knocked off the top-seeded team in the conference in the first round of the playoffs, the Rangers would figure to face less formidable opponents at least until the Stanley Cup Finals -- starting with the Philadelphia Flyers, whom they face in the second round beginning Sunday afternoon.
Don't count on it.
If the Rangers proved anything by dispatching the 30-13-5, first-in-the-East Quebec Nordiques in the six games that ended with Tuesday night's clincher at the Garden, it is what so many of them had been insisting before the playoffs started.
"I don't think after 48 games anything is cut and dried," coach Colin Campbell said. "After 48 games, is it clear which teams are the best? I don't think so."
Or, as Rangers president Neil Smith more pointedly stated: "If we had played a regular 84-game season, we wouldn't have been the eighth seed."
But the Flyers still might have wound up as the Atlantic Division champ and second seed in the conference. Because, with only a minor hiccup just before the season's stretch run, Philadelphia was a powerhouse team from the day they made The Trade.
That, of course, would be the Feb. 9 deal that sent Mark Recchi to Montreal for winger John LeClair, defenseman Eric Desjardins and center Gilbert Dionne. Floundering at 3-7-1 the day the trade was made, the Flyers immediately went 13-2-2 to whiz right past the Rangers and into first place in the Atlantic.
The surge was led by the LeClair-Eric Lindros-Mikael Renberg line that has unfortunately [but aptly] come to be known as the Legion of Doom. The trio combined for a whopping 76 goals in the 37 games after the deal was made. That computes to 59.8% of the Flyers' goals over that span.
While that suggests the Flyers are the kind of team least likely to succeed in the playoffs -- a one-line team -- appearances might be deceiving.
With Lindros still out with the eye injury suffered against the Rangers on April 30, the Flyers won two of the first three games against Buffalo in their first-round playoff series. Second-line center Rod Brind'Amour stepped forward and wound up leading all Flyers' scorers in the series with three goals and five assists. And goaltender Ron Hextall played very well, recording a 2.52 goals-against average and .912 save percentage as the Flyers cruised in five games.
What's more, even if all of the Flyers' scoring were coming from the Lindros line, shutting it down is not as simple as assigning a couple of defensive forwards to check it and then changing on the fly. Because of the imposing size of all three players, tenacity and proper positioning often aren't enough when they get the puck.
"You can't physically take [Lindros] out of the game," said Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch, whose pairing with Jeff Beukeboom undoubtedly will play the majority of the time against the Lindros line. "With guys like Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg [of Quebec], you could put one guy on them and follow them around. You can't do that with Eric."
In the team's first three regular-season meetings this year, the Rangers couldn't do anything with Lindros. They tried a pseudo-checking line of Stephane Matteau, Alexei Kovalev and Brian Noonan with mixed results. They tried power vs. power with Mark Messier's line and didn't fare very well.