Once in awhile, the NHL actually comes up with a good idea to generate excitement for the game. Each year since its start, the Winter Classic has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success and this year’s matchup of the Philadelphia Flyers versus the New York Rangers at Citizen’s Bank Park, Philadelphia should keep that trend.
It’s a classic rivalry. There’s bad blood between the teams that goes back years and years. There’s a natural rivalry between the two cities—in each sport and personally.
The Rangers currently sit on top of the entire Eastern Conference, with a 23-9-4 record (50 points) and are 12-6-2 away from Madison Square Garden. The Flyers sport a 22-10-4 record, trailing the Rangers for the division lead by 2 points. Their record at home is 8-5-2.
So far this season, the Rangers have the Flyers’ number, beating them twice already in New York by scores of 2-0 and 4-2. It took the Flyers deep into the third period of the second before they finally scored a goal against Lundqvist. The Flyers didn’t play poorly in those games, the Rangers, and most specifically their defense, were just better. The defense choked off the Flyers attack and Lundqvist turned away whatever else got through. The Rangers offense doesn’t score a ton of goals, but they buried the high quality chances they got against the Flyers.
A lot of people around the league predicted the Flyers to make the playoffs with one of the final seeds or even struggle to make the playoffs. They spent the offseason revamping much of their offense and spending big money to sign Ilya Bryzgalov. Exit Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Ville Leino and enter Jaromir Jagr, Jabuk Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Matt Read. The offense, led by Hart candidate Claude Giroux, hasn’t missed a beat and you could make the argument that they’re even better than last season. They have 7 players with at least 10 goals and James van Riemsdyk currently has 9.
Marian Gaborik leads the offense of the Rangers with 22 goals, which is good for second in the NHL along with big money free agent Brad Richards and newly appointed captain Ryan Callahan. The Rangers don’t have the offensive depth that the Flyers have, but Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov provide decent scoring punch.
New York is around the middle of the pack in offense, but their defense is what makes them one of the top teams in the NHL. Henrik Lundqvist is once again proving this year that he is an elite goalie in the NHL. If he can see the shot, he’ll make the save. His .937 save percentage and 1.91 GAA are top of the line and he’s been giving the Flyers nightmares over the past year and a half.
But a goalie is only as good as the defense in front of him, and the Rangers boast one of the better defenses in the NHL even without the inured Marc Staal. Evidence of this can be seen in backup goalie Marty Biron’s .923 save percentage and 2.08 GAA. Dan Girardi is one of the more underrated defensemen in the league and has not gotten anywhere near the credit he deserves. He leads the NHL in ice time per game. When you’re leading in a category ahead of the likes of Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, and Shea Weber, you know you’re doing something well. And young players Michael Del Zotto (+25) and Ryan McDonagh have stepped up their game.
The story of the Flyers defense this season has been the injuries of captain Chris Pronger and the subsequent revelation that he is done for the rest of the season. At this point, you have to wonder about his career. So the Flyers were forced to circle the wagons a bit and redraw responsibilities. Kimmo Timonen has always been a steadying force on the blue line and Andrej Meszaros (who won the award for being the team’s best defenseman last season) needs to continue to pick it up. And even though you can’t really replace what Pronger brings to the lineup, the Flyers still have one of the best defenses on paper. Despite that, the defense is prone to gaffs when forechecked. Matt Carle seems to be especially quick to have the brain fart of “Wait…what am I supposed to do with this little black thing on the ice?” The coughing up of the puck deep in their own zone, the passing of the puck to avoid pressure to a defensive partner with a forechecker all over his back, and the failed easy clears (I’m looking at you too, forwards) have resulted in many a goal scored against the Flyers this year.
Ilya Bryzgalov hasn’t been the best this season, but it’s the above described breakdowns that have been a major reason for his struggles. He played very well during a stretch of a record of 11-1-1, but his two bad streaks (he’s in one now) have given his critics plenty of fodder. And with Sergei Bobrovsky playing very well in their last game against the Penguins, Bob will be getting the start tomorrow afternoon. It’s the right move and if Bobrovsky has a big game, he could be stealing a lot more than just the Winter Classic from Bryz.
The weather forecast says that it will be a sunny, breezy day with a high of 41°F with 49% humidity. The moderate humidity and steady breeze should keep the ice surface relatively dry and the Flyers should be praying that’s the case. The Rangers, on the other hand, should be doing their best rain dance all night tonight. A choppy, slow ice will benefit the Rangers as they tend to be able to grind out goals while the Flyers rely on high end skill. Just like the previous games, the slower the pace, the better it is for the Rangers. If they get into an up and down game, the Flyers will surgically dispose of them. But being that they won’t be in the nice and friendly climate-controlled arena, pristine ice conditions are about as likely as a Gaborik/Briere fight.
But maybe the Flyers should embrace the bad ice. At times during the season, they’ve gone through offensive funks that involve things like too many passes, failed lone ranger rushes, turnovers at the opponent’s blue line instead of simply dumping it into the corner, etc. Many Flyers fans will complain about the Flyers being victims of “lucky goals” for the other team, but there’s a reason why those types of goals are called “dirty, but good.” I know, I know, it’s frustrating to see a guy fling the puck blindly from the corner and watch it bounce off two or three skates and into the net, but you don’t score if you don’t send the puck towards the net. It’s what the Rangers did to the Flyers in their two wins this season, and (big surprise!) the Flyers tend to have success when they do the same.
Sean Couturier could have a big day for the Flyers. He missed some time recently with a concussion and his absence was reflected in the Flyers’ product on the ice. He’s very skilled defensively and is one of the team’s better penalty killers. You’d be shocked that he just turned 19 years old based on the maturity that he shows on the ice. That’s why I think he’s one of the players on Philly more likely to recognize that playing the game simply will win it. And with all of the firepower the Flyers have on their top three lines commanding the attention of New York’s best defensive players, as well as Ryan McDonagh possibly not playing because of the flu, he could turn into a sneaky offensive threat, especially if fellow rookie Brayden Schenn is playing on his line again.
For the Rangers, my player to watch is Brandon Dubinsky. His 4 goals so far are a disappointment, but he’s a guy who really seems to have a chip on his shoulder when he plays the Flyers. And while his personal rival Mike Richards won’t be playing, he still has plenty of reason to bring it. Maybe he’ll try to set the tone with a scrap? He’s actually riding a 2 game goal scoring “streak” and has 3 of his goals in the past 5 games with 5 points in those games.
The first goal is immensely important and it’s likely that the team that scores first tomorrow will end up winning the game. The Flyers have been good at coming back this season, but the Rangers win at a 90% clip when they score first and only win 31% when they trail first. Furthermore, in each of the two games these teams have played this year the games were very even and possibly tilted in the Flyers’ favor before the Rangers drew first blood. That completely changed once the Rangers scored. The Flyers have to come storming out of the gate, getting a lot of pucks and traffic in the face of Lundqvist to make him uncomfortable early because like any goalie, the deeper he goes into the game, the better he seems to get. The Rangers, on the other hand, need to be opportunistic as pushing hard offensively tends to leave you open to odd man rushes going the other way. The Flyers really don’t want to see Brad Richards and Marion Gaborik flying down the ice on a 2 on 1.
So who wins? Come on, you can’t really expect a Flyers fan not to pick his team for the Winter Classic, can you? So take this with a grain of salt if you want, but I’m predicting that the Flyers win by a score of 3-2 after they grab the lead with an early powerplay goal.
Enjoy the game!