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Rangers Out-Grit Flyers for Win in Winter Classic

In what was an absolute classic between two teams that absolutely dislike each other, the Rangers prevailed over the Flyers 3-2.  

Rangers and Flyers.  Two great teams.  Two tough teams.  Two physical teams.  Two teams that unequivocally, downright hate each other.  The question coming in, off of two Ranger wins over the Flyers, was how soon the physical manifestation of that dislike would show up.  In the open air of the Winter Classic, how long would it take for both teams to relax, play their game, and stamp themselves the physical force that they both need to be to win games.

Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

Well.  The answer to that question came with the first puck drop.  It was a ferocious start for both clubs, with scoring chances – Ryan Callahan hit a post for the Rangers and Claude Giroux was stoned on a breakaway by Henrik Lundqvist – and big hits from Callahan and Kimo Timonen in the game’s opening seconds.  The intense pace endured for the bulk of the first period, though as the game wound on it was clearly shifting in favor of the Flyers.  Both teams were forechecking well and creating turnovers, but the puck was most often finding Flyer sticks.  The Rangers as a team were looking just a little off.  None of them were impressive in the first period – except for The King.  Henrik Lundqvist was standing on his head – though a man with such a majestic quiff would never do such a thing.  The super Swede was the only reason that the Rangers were level with the Flyers at the end of a period that had been thoroughly dominated by Philadelphia.

As the second period began, the fluid up and down game that was the first twenty minutes devolved into the more methodical game that each team plays.  The Rangers were beginning to relax, and were beginning to match the Flyer’s intensity.  Fat lot of good it did them, however, as Brayden Schenn directed a rebound past Henrik Lundqvist for a Flyer lead.  If John Tortorella’s what I’m guessing must be normally high blood pressure hadn’t shot to Plavix necessitating levels at that point, it would just seconds later when the Flyers struck again.  Claude Giroux took a pass on a two-on-one break, deeked once, and flicked home a goal.  2-0 Flyers, and the Rangers were on their heels.  The malaise that the team had shown early had come back to haunt them and they were now in desperate need of some heroics.

Rob Carr, Getty Images

Heroics they’d get, from the stick of…Mike Rupp?  Hang on, let me check my notes.  That can’t be right.  Holy hell, it is.  Merely seconds after the Flyers took control of the game with their second goal, Mike Rupp took a pass from Brandon Prust and bulged the back of the onion bag with a great wrist shot.  With a salute to the crowd, Rupp had cut the Ranger deficit in half. The second period would end at that score, but you got the sense that the momentum of this game had shifted.  The play was still wildly physical, and the Flyers still had the lead, but the Rangers had finally begun to play their game.  Ranger coach John Tortorella had adjusted some lines, moving goal scorer Brad Richards onto a line with all-energy players Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan.  That line, combined with the line of Mitchell, Rupp and Prust had helped the Rangers settle in, begin to forecheck, and begin to put their stamp on the game.

That stamp would be firmly and definitively planted on the Winter Classic early in the third period.  Down by one, the Rupper struck again.  Wait.  Seriously?  Mike Rupp, again?!  Who is this guy?!  Doing his best “goal scoring forward” impression, Rupp streaked down the far side of the ice and lit the lamp with a sneaky wrist shot that snuck past Flyer goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.  It was a goal that really should have been stopped; the rearing of an ugly problem that has plagued the Flyers for years.  The man who’d been touted as the answer to the Flyer goaltending woes – Ilya Bryzgalov – was benched the night before the game, and was forced to watch that soft shot trickle past his replacement, and tie the game.

The game would stay tied only so long, however – The Rangers had taken control.  For the first time all night, they were forcing turnovers in the Flyer end, putting hellacious pressure on the puck, and getting consistent scoring chances.  It was just a matter of time before they’d capitalize.  How fitting it was that the line that John Tortorella had created just minutes earlier would be the one to do so.  Callahan forced a turnover, then in behind the Flyer net he made a great play to slide the puck in front.  Brandon Dubinsky’s shot was stopped, but the rebound found the tape of Brad Richards, who simply doesn’t miss from four feet away with an empty net – Then again, who does? 3-2 Rangers.

A Peter Laviolette time out helped restore some order to the Flyer ranks as the team took to the ice to try and claw their way back into the game.  With the Rangers taking a more defensive posture, the finish was sure to be a frantic one – No one yet knew, however, that the frantic finish would be provided by the unspeakably poor, conspiracy theory raising, officiating that would color the game’s final minutes.  Inside of six minutes to play, Ryan McDonagh was given a penalty, presumably for being thrown into the net by a Flyer and knocking it off it’s mooring.  Luckily, the Rangers killed the penalty.  Later, with the Flyer goalie pulled, Ryan Callahan skated into open ice, charging toward the empty net.  Pulled down on as clear a hook as there has been in NHL history, Callahan was called for holding the stick.  The matching minors kept the Flyers alive.  Two awful calls that each went the way of Philadelphia.

Rob Carr, Getty Images

Through it all Henrik Lundqvist had stood tall; he’d looked every bit the Vezina trophy candidate he should be.  But the officials weren’t done yet.  With nineteen seconds to play, The King was said to have received the help of the closed hand of Ryan McDonagh.  Penalty Shot.  Danny Briere vs. Henrik Lundqvist for the Winter Classic.  Briere skated in and tried to sneak a wrist shot through the five hole of Lunqvist.  Stoned.  Rangers win.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the New York Rangers are for real.  Had you not known it before, you better know it now.  On the grandest stage the NHL has to offer – let’s face it, the Stanley Cup Playoffs don’t draw the casual fan anymore – the Rangers out-gritted the Flyers and came away with a terrific win.  But forget the Winter Classic for a moment.  The Rangers entered today’s game with the Flyers 2-0 against their rivals from Philadelphia, and one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.  With the win they go 3-0 on the year against the Flyers and find themselves atop the Eastern Conference.  When was the last time you could say that about the Rangers?  1994?  This team is giving the city of New York what it hasn’t had in years, hope.

Today’s game was an absolute microcosm of who this team is.  They’re imperfect and they don’t possess an overwhelming amount of skill.  But they’re tough, they’re physical, and they’re without an ounce of quit.  Outplayed for thirty minutes of hockey, the Rangers were unfazed and unwilling to go quietly.  They out-hit the Flyers 50-41 in the game, and blocked 20 shots, 12 more than the Flyers.  They battled every step of the way and on pure effort, found themselves on top at the end.  This team is for real.

For the Rangers, pat Henrik Lundqvist on the back.  The man made 34 saves on 36 shots and was the only reason the Rangers were still in this game after one period.  Rupp, obviously, Dan Girardi, Carl Hagelin, and John Mitchell were other important yet unsung contributors to this Ranger win.  The win also featured the return of defenseman Marc Staal, who looked solid, albeit a touch slow.  For the Flyers, Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds each had terrific games.

But what a terrific game it was for the NHL.  What an unbelievable product to put on display for the world to see.  It not only showcased everything that makes this game great, but it was also without the buffoonery and thuggery that has marred the game in recent years, and it provided unbelievable – somewhat manufactured – drama to end the game.  The physical, fast-paced, gritty game that was unfurled by these two excellent teams is without a doubt the best publicity that this sport could hope for.  The 2012 Winter Classic, a win for the Rangers, a success for the NHL.

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