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SportsColumnistsArthur Staple

Fourth lines could be difference in Rangers-Flyers series

The Philadelphia Flyers' Wayne Simmonds, left, fights with

The Philadelphia Flyers' Wayne Simmonds, left, fights with Brian Boyle, right, during the last seconds of the third period of a game on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - It's the first day of the Rangers' playoff season. That means it's time to grind.

There's plenty of skill on both sides of this Rangers-Flyers series. The Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist, which means the edge in goal. Philly has Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and a cast of talented forwards pretty well unmatched in the East.

But this series may come down to the grinders, the fourth-line guys who could turn a series with strong play.

The Rangers know this all too well. They played the Devils evenly among the skill players in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, only to have the unsung fourth line of Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier lead New Jersey to victory.

The Rangers were overmatched in the 2013 second round against the Bruins, but they weren't expecting Boston's fourth line of Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton to do so much damage.

So the headliners will get lots of attention when the puck drops Thursday night at the Garden. But look closer and you may see the lesser names who could make the difference.

"It's our top lines against theirs and five-on-five goals will be hard to come by," said Brian Boyle, who with Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett forms the Rangers' fourth line. "Our line can be counted on to provide a spark, and we expect to."

The Flyers' fourth line is an anomaly, given that it will likely be centered by Vinny Lecavalier, who is eighth among active players with 403 goals. Lecavalier and Adam Hall will team with either Tye McGinn or Zac Rinaldo for a fourth line that will have built-in offense, but perhaps a bit less grind.

Under John Tortorella, the Rangers were all grind, all the time, led by Captain Grind, Ryan Callahan. Both coach and captain are gone now and the Rangers, while still a defense-first team, are more concerned with using speed and positioning rather than wearing opponents down -- and possibly themselves in the process.

Part of the reason for Tortorella's dismissal last summer was that the players were worn to the nub after the regular season and didn't have enough left for the postseason.

With Alain Vigneault's system, the Rangers should be fresher for the playoffs than in seasons past.

"We played a lot of playoff games the past few years," Lundqvist said, "so I don't know if you can say that yet. We have to see how we do with our system now."

The Rangers could certainly be a speed team against the Flyers this series. There will be long-ago video clips to sell this matchup -- from the 1979 quarterfinals to the Smurfs beating the Broad Street Bullies in the early 1980s to Eric Lindros bulling over the Rangers in the 1997 conference final -- but this is not old-time hockey.

The Rangers are built on speed, precision and goaltending. The Flyers have a defense that is built more for joining the rush than clearing space in front of their own goal. The sideshow will not overtake the plot this series.

But that does not mean the grinders and muckers are irrelevant. Vigneault said Wednesday he'd much rather roll four lines than lean too heavily on his top guys, another switch from the Tortorella era.

Boyle and Moore do the bulk of their work on the penalty kill, which will be huge as always. But they and Dorsett or Daniel Carcillo can be the tone-setters at even strength, the difference-makers in a series that's awfully even as we head into it.

"You never know who can be that guy who steps up in the playoffs," Boyle said. "We've seen it happen."

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