Two of the best teams the Eastern Conference -- if not the entire National Hockey League -- has to offer will do battle on the grandest stage Monday afternoon in Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Park (3 p.m. EST, NBC). The Winter Classic is the NHL's version of the Super Bowl, yet it occurs midway through the season instead of as the culminating event. The New York Rangers will visit their hated rivals in Philadelphia Flyers in a spectacle that's been covered ad nauseum since the beginning of the year, most notably with HBO's 24/7 chronicling the teams' "Road to the Winter Classic."
Finally, the two division rivals will take the ice with all the hoopla as a sidenote to what's most important, and that's the two points in the standings. Granted, both teams have only played 36 games, but the Atlantic Division (and Eastern Conference) is already setting up to be a dogfight. New York is second in the league, and first in the conference with 50 points, while Philadelphia is only a step behind with 48 points. The best part of this Winter Classic is that there is a lot of animosity between the two teams, and these points are very meaningful. For a regular-season game, there's a lot on the line.
Nobody wants to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime event like this and fall short, thus the key to the game for both teams is containing their emotions. The game has all the ingredients with a nationally-televised broadcast and all the lead-up excitement. Plus, every single player will undoubtedly leave it all out on the ice, the tempo will be ramped up and the players will be roaring to go -- making it easy to pinpoint the each coach's message: enjoy yourselves, but keep your emotions in check so as to not hurt the team or deviate from what's been successful.
The Rangers beat the Flyers in the first two home meetings of the year, so there's no way Philadelphia wants to begin the season series down 3-0. Both teams play an uptempo style, they skate very well and have depth across the lineup even with the injuries suffered by both.
Comparing the teams, the Flyers have scored 123 goals to the Rangers' 107, however New York has only given up 77 compared to Philadelphia's 106. The difference has been in the goaltending; Philadelphia will turn to backup Sergei Bobrovsky over (the struggling) camera star Ilya Bryzgalov, while the Rangers will have Henrik Lundqvist. Marian Gaborik is the Blueshirts' leading goal scorer with 22 and 33 points, while Claude Girioux, one of the best players in the game, paces the Flyers with 17 and 45.
Playing outdoors in the elements, which look to be only some wind at this point, both teams will have to deal with an ice surface that's not ideal. Thus, it's likely to be low scoring, but it makes it more important to be fundamentally and positionally sound on defense, which the Rangers have been except for a few blips on the radar.
New York needs to continue to create offense from being smart defensively and forechecking hard. It's not a flashy offense but one that creates off of hard work and firm play along the boards. So long as the Rangers continue to play the style that's been successful all season long and they utilize all four lines (which all have scoring ability), there's no reason why the Rangers can't be the 2012 Winter Classic winners.