NHL Winter Classic Preview
On January second the New York Rangers will finally get their turn to take center stage in the NHL's marquee event. They'll take on the Philadelphia Flyers from the infield of Citizens Bank Ball Park in the city of brotherly love.
Hold on to your butts hockey fans- as Samuel L. Jackson would say - this one's gonna be fun. Over the last four seasons, the NHL has done a uniquely un NHL-like job creating and building a media event that, at this point, is simply must-see TV. And whether it be by luck or by some kind of Miss Cleo foresight, they've almost ensured themselves such an event on Monday. Rangers-Flyers. It's the kind of matchup that makes hockey fanatics and orthopedic surgeons grin from ear to ear, even when both clubs are subpar. This year, though, both teams are top five in their conference and would have to be pegged as favorites to get out of the East.
The clubs play similar styles. Both are largely physical, blue collar teams that pride themselves on hard work. Lead by Claude Giroux, the Flyers boast the better offense and the better power play, they're second in the league in goals for. The Rangers, however, boast the better defense and the better penalty kill. Despite injuries to Marc Staal and Michael Sauer, the Rangers are second in the league in goals against. Young but talented, they've been rock solid in front of goalie Henrik Lundqvist - a man whom historically hasn't needed much of a defense to look dynamic. Without much attention from the public, the oh so suave Swede has been one of the best goalies in the NHL since his entrance into the league. A talent so glorious it can only be equaled by his marvelous quiff, the man they call "The King" is having one the best seasons of his career. He gives the Rangers an undeniable advantage at the position over the enigmatic and unpredictable Ilya Bryzgalov.
The two previous match ups between the teams have both gone the way of the Rangers. In the first battle, Lundqvist stood on that magnificent salad of his and shut-out the Flyers. Goals from Richards and Hagelin secured the 2-0 win for the Blue Shirts. The second matchup, which took place only a week ago, was a ferocious one that was dominated by the men of New York. Goals from Stepan, Fedotenko and Gaborik opened up a 3-0 lead for the Rangers, and they cruised to a 4-2 win. Despite the one-sided nature of the contest, the chippy, hard hitting style of play the game featured made it a perfect preview to a Winter Classic that should emphasize the same.
If the Rangers are to get the same result as their first two tie ups with the Broad Street Bullies, their effort will have to start and end with the forecheck. When the Rangers are on top of their game, which they have been for most of the year - God I've been waiting years to say that! - they're using their forecheck to get going. Force turnovers in the offensive zone, keep the Flyers from getting any momentum up ice, and allow Gaborik and Richards to be the scorers that they've shown they can be - God I've been waiting years to say that about Ranger players, too! The key for the Flyers will be sustained possession in the defensive zone. The Rangers have been prone to defensive lapses at the ends of shifts. If the Flyers can pass well enough to keep pressure on the Rangers defense, they could find themselves with a couple tap-in goals.
As for the game, it's really a toss up. These two teams are equally matched, despite the Rangers having won the first two tie ups. I look for a harsh, chippy game that will be as physical as it is entertaining. I put the over/under for the first fight at thirty minutes of actual gameplay - take the under. Brandon Prust vs. Scott Hartnell. Look for Claude Giroux of the Flyers to play well, and look for Ryan Callahan and Henrik Lundqvist to shine for the Rangers. In the end, I think the Ranger defense will once again prove too much for the Flyers. Callahan and Richards will light the lamp for the Rangers, with Gaborik finishing the game with an empty netter. For the Flyers, Giroux may find the back of the net, but I cautiously call for a 3-1 Ranger victory.
Coverage for the Winter Classic starts at one o'clock. Check back here after the game for a recap. Enjoy!