Flyers playoffs 2014: Lineup decisions loom as Game 1 draws closer

"PUT ME IN, COACH." - Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Craig Berube will have some very interesting decisions to make regarding his forward lines over the next few days.

With the Flyers' playoff spot having been clinched since Tuesday, and with them having an extra forward spot in the lineup due to Zac Rinaldo's suspension, Craig Berube has used the past few games to try some different looks with the Flyers' forward lines. 14 different guys have played in those forward spots, and a few of them have shuffled around different lines in those times.

That's all well and good -- no better time to try something different than when the games don't really matter and you've already clinched a playoff spot. But with Rinaldo returning and four other guys hoping to be on the ice when the playoffs begin on Thursday night, what does Berube do from here with his lines?

First, let's all agree that the following ten guys are all locks to be in the lineup when the series with the Rangers begins on Thursday: Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, Matt Read, Michael Raffl, Vincent Lecavalier, and Adam Hall. None of these guys appear to have any obvious injuries, and barring something unforeseen (it's unlikely, but could Hartnell get suspended for his late-game spear of Carolina's Brett Bellemore on Sunday?), they should all be there.

So that's ten spots. Assuming Craig Berube isn't planning on running any sort of odd lineup or surprise-scratching any of those guys, that leaves two forwards to fill those last lineup spots. Let's briefly run through who the candidates are to fill those two spots. (We won't include Jay Rosehill here, because typically pure enforcers don't see ice time in the playoffs unless something has gone terribly wrong.)

Zac Rinaldo

Why he might be in: Rinaldo, who will be eligible to return the lineup following a suspension for an illegal hit to the head that cost him the regular season's final four games, is almost certainly going to be in one of the remaining two lineup spots when the puck drops on Thursday night. The only time he's missed this year has been due to injuries and suspension, so chances are that won't change now. His ability to lay big hits and draw penalties has him in Berube's favor. If we're being honest here, there's not much of a reason at all to think he won't be in the lineup on Thursday.

Why he might not be in: Well, he IS coming off of a four-game suspension -- his second in the NHL -- and with that being close in the rearview mirror, there's a pretty good chance that the officials are going to be watching him even closer than they usually are (and they're already watching him pretty well). And this is all on top of the fact that the next three guys on this list all have more obvious hockey talent than Rinaldo -- in a series where you're facing a really strong defensive team without many glaring weaknesses, and you've got other candidates to play that give you a better chance of getting on the scoreboard, can you afford to sit those guys for a pest?

Where does he fit? Right before his suspension, Rinaldo was actually spending time on Couturier's wing on the team's third/shutdown line. But it seems most likely that if he's back in, he'll be on the fourth line with Lecavalier and Hall.

Should he be in? I'm iffy here. I've admittedly never been Rinaldo's biggest fan, and I'm scared that with him being back in the lineup he's going to get called for every little thing that he does. The Rangers can tend to get the Flyers frustrated pretty easily, and when that's happening, Rinaldo can either be at his best (launching big, clean hits or drawing penalties that can get the Flyers pumped and back into the game) or at his worst (trying too hard to get the Flyers pumped and committing stupid penalties that make things worse). Risk vs. reward, and all that. Me, personally, I don't think I'd have him in. But I understand why the Flyers probably will.

Will he be in? Yeah. As mentioned above, he hasn't been healthy scratched yet, Berube seems to like him, and if he's on his game, he can be an asset by taking the body and drawing penalties. But following his suspension, there's a chance he might not get much leeway from the officials -- and if that's the case, Berube might keep him on a short leash. Rinaldo unleashed a big bag of stupid in Game 4 of the 2012 ECQF against the Penguins and was then scratched by Peter Laviolette for the next six games, so if he goes crazy early on in this series, who knows.

Tye McGinn

Why he might be in: Since his most recent call-up to the Flyers on March 23, McGinn has played in 10 of the Flyers' 12 games. He's alternated between the wing on the second line with Schenn and Simmonds and the wing on the fourth line with Lecavalier and Hall. He's gritty/physical enough and might have just enough skill to play in either one of those places.

Why he might not be in: The problem, of course, is that McGinn hasn't done much to impress in those ten games he played. He was more or less invisible with Schenn and Simmonds, putting up zero points and a paltry three shots on goal in those first six games. He came back from a two-game press-box vacation following Rinaldo's suspension and has played better since then (a goal while on Lecavalier's fourth line and an assist of a Wayne Simmonds goal off of a great forecheck yesterday), but overall the record this year isn't great.

Where does he fit? As mentioned, they could try him back on the second line, but with how much he faltered there in this most recent stint, I can't see them putting him above the fourth line with Lecavalier.

Should he be in? Again, I'm iffy on this one. He's had a golden opportunity in the past few weeks and he hasn't taken advantage of it. Assuming the Vincent Lecavalier, Fourth-Line Center experiment is going to continue through the playoffs, his respectable combination of grit and goal-scoring ability could continue to make him a great fit alongside Lecavalier. I'd be interested in seeing that continue. But I don't think he offers close to enough consistency to be comfortable with slotting him in as a second-line winger when the playoffs start.

Will he be in? I don't think he will. For the most part, the coaches here have always seen McGinn as a top-6-or-bust kind of guy. It's part of why they put him back on Schenn and Simmonds' wing the past two games. And if Raffl slots back in on the second line when he moves back into the lineup, there probably isn't a place for McGinn if they won't put him on the fourth line.

Steve Downie

Why he might be in: When he's been healthy and fully functional, Downie has been able to get the best out of a few guys on the team -- in particular, Couturier and Read on the team's shutdown line. When he isn't committing silly offensive-zone penalties (sounds like someone else on this list) and is playing sound defense, he's a solid forward who can even chip in a bit offensively.

Why he might not be in: Downie's play has slowly gotten worse as the season's gone on, and it seems like it came to a head last Thursday when he had a really, really bad game against Tampa as he was the main culprit responsible for two goals against. Downie sat the last two games of the season despite no apparent injury (he had just recovered from an "upper-body injury" that was probably a concussion, so maybe that flared back up, but we didn't really get an explanation) and it does seem like he's just not a favorite of the coaching staff here.

Where does he fit? If he's in, he would either fit in the third-line winger spot alongside Couturier and Read or on the fourth line with Lecavalier and Hall.

Should he be in? Is he healthy? Has he been healthy for a while now? As mentioned, his hot start with the Flyers in November seems like a distant memory, and if he's still having injury issues (head, shoulder, whatever it is) that are holding him back from being that guy that he was before, he probably shouldn't be higher than the fourth line, if at all.

Will he be in? The fact that he sat on Sunday against Carolina, with so many other guys held out as a precaution, doesn't make it look good for his chances.

Jason Akeson

Why he might be in: Akeson, who was with Adirondack the entire season until he was called up on Saturday evening, might be the best pure offensive player among the choices listed here. He was the best offensive player on the Phantoms this year (admittedly, not saying a ton), and he had a good game yesterday, with a very nice set-up on Matt Read's first-period goal and a respectable day in terms of puck possession (+7 in on-ice shot attempts). Apparently Berube has said that he's considering Akeson for a playoff spot, which is saying something, considering that ...

Why he might not be in: ... he has obvious limitations that are the reason he's only spent one game on the active roster this year. Akeson's small and not that quick, and the word is that he's not so great defensively (making it all the more interesting that Berube put him on the Flyers' shutdown line with Couturier and Read yesterday). He seems to be another "top-6-or-bust" type, and again, there are probably reservations about taking a guy who hasn't been in the NHL all season and sliding him into a meaningful role in a playoff hunt.

Where does he fit? My best guess is on the second-line wing next to Schenn and Simmonds -- Akeson's been billed as a guy who would likely succeed as a sheltered NHL scorer, which is how that line is usually handled. But as mentioned, in his one game with the Flyers he played on the team's top defensive line with Couturier and Read, so what do I know?

Should he be in? On the one hand, I'm not sure about a guy who basically has no NHL experience coming in cold in a playoff series. But Akeson seems like he's got some solid hockey smarts and skills, and if Berube thinks enough of him defensively to put him on the shutdown line, maybe concerns about his defense are a little overblown. He's probably got the highest all-around reward of any of the guys listed here, and in a series where the Flyers are underdogs, that's tempting.

Will he be in? I have no idea. I'd say no, but the fact that Berube has floated the possibility of it intrigues me. Let's say yes. Upset pick.

***

So those are your candidates. As hinted to above, I think that Rinaldo is in, and of the other three, I think that Akeson might be creeping ahead as the guy to take the other spot. So that would leave you with a couple of possibilities. Such as:

Hartnell - Giroux - Voracek
Akeson - Schenn - Simmonds
Raffl - Couturier - Read
Rinaldo - Lecavalier - Hall

Or maybe you switch Raffl and Akeson. But in any case, that gives you an intriguing second-line and a third line that we've already seen have two-way success this year.

Now, what would I do?

Hartnell - Giroux - Voracek
Akeson - Schenn - Simmonds
Raffl - Couturier - Read
McGinn - Lecavalier - Hall

As mentioned, I'm worried that Rinaldo isn't going to be getting the benefit of the doubt from the officials after his most recent incident, and the Flyers just need to try and stay disciplined in this series. As for McGinn, I do like him as a fourth-liner, so I'd have him there, but if the coaching staff thinks Downie is healthy, maybe give him a shot there as well. Hell, if you're really feeling confident in Downie (which I think Berube isn't, but if he is), then maybe give him a whirl on that third line where he's been successful before, and then shift Raffl to either the fourth or the second.

No shortage of possibilities here, as you can see. Your thoughts?

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