A Classic Rivalry
By Christopher Decker (@HockeyGuy_Chris)
Photo courtesy of NHL.com
The sound of swooshing ice skates; the slap of sticks meeting vulcanized rubber; and the water vapor protruding from the mouths of bundled up hockey players on a cold winter day are what most fans associate with ice hockey, and are a culmination of the things that bring out the youth in all of us.
Years ago, individuals braved the harsh winter weather to participate in a game they loved. To this day, most NHL players braved those same conditions growing up. They stuck with it, they embodied a passion for it, and, let’s face it, they made it a vital part of their lives.
In fact, many of us remember the first time we ever laced up a pair of ice skates and stepped onto a backyard pond or indoor ice hockey rink. For a lot of us, it was one of the most unique, exciting, and indescribable experiences of our life. Years later, some of us maintain that same excitement the minute the skate blade touches a clean sheet of ice. So much joy from something so simplistic.
And here we sit, just days away from one of the most exciting events in the history of the NHL. A tradition that started in America just five years ago in Orchard Park, NY, but which has brought more fans to the game, more viewers to their televisions, and more fuel to the rivalry fire that exists around the league.
The 2012 Winter Classic is now upon us.
History of the Classic
In 2008, Ralph Wilson Stadium entertained over 70,000 people as the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins for the first ever Winter Classic match-up. Despite the home team losing 2-1 in a shootout, the tradition began with a bang as the temperatures reached near the freezing mark, snow fell gracefully from the sky, and the NHL’s Golden Child fittingly ended the game.
The next year’s Winter Classic saw two Original Six teams square off at Wrigley Field in Chicago, as the Blackhawks took on the Detroit Red Wings. This marked the first time an ice hockey game was played in a baseball stadium. Much to the delight of the near 41,000 in attendance, the game saw a total of 10 goals as the Red Wings defeated the Blackhawks 6-4.
In 2010, Boston’s Fenway Park held the third annual Winter Classic game as the Philadelphia Flyers came into town to battle the Bruins. In a high-spirited affair in one of the most iconic baseball parks in sports history, the Bruins became the first home team to win as they defeated the Flyers 2-1 in overtime.
Last year marked the much anticipated match-up between two of the NHL’s best players, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, which really couldn’t have worked out better from an NHL marketing standpoint. Heinz Field, home to the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, held nearly 70,000 people in a game where the Capitals edged out the Penguins 3-1, but where also, unfortunately, Crosby suffered a season-ending concussion. Despite the injury, it was yet another successful and heavily viewed event.
The 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic
There probably could not be two more evenly matched teams heading into this year’s event.
The host Philadelphia Flyers have been playing stellar hockey lately, posting a 7-3-0 record in their last 10 games. In fact, the Flyers have been one of the NHL’s most consistent teams all year, sitting just one point away from the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins.
Many felt that the departures of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in the off-season would severely affect the Flyers’ offensive production coming into the season, which in turn, would put an inordinate amount of pressure on newly acquired and well paid goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov.
But much to the chagrin of NHL analysts far and wide, the Flyers sit atop the Eastern Conference and second in the NHL in goals, due in large part to their superstar, Claude Giroux; born-again goal machine, Scott Hartnell; reinvigorated Jaromir Jagr; and rookie sensation Matt Read. Ironically, their goaltending, an issue they thought was nipped in the bud in the off-season by signing Bryzgalov, is struggling.
The Flyers are also playing shorthanded due to injury, like many other teams in theNHL. Chris Pronger recently sustained a potential career-ending concussion after getting a stick to his eye. This leaves a gaping hole on defense and leads many to believe the back-end won’t be strong enough without the presence of their captain. But don’t tell that to Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, or Andrej Meszaros, who have all done a fine job keeping things in check. Timonen is currently eighth in points among all NHL defensemen.
Philadelphia also received a scare when they learned their all-star forward and NHL leading scorer, Giroux, was sidelined indefinitely with a concussion – something the league has been plagued with all season and the last thing anyone associated with the Flyers wanted to hear. Amazingly, Giroux was back on the ice in less than two weeks. Even more amazingly, he put up four points in his first game back and still maintained the league lead in points while away.
The Flyers have turned into one of the most well-balanced teams in the NHL, constantly fighting tooth and nail for the Division and Conference leads.
The visiting New York Rangers will be coming into Citizens Bank Park as perhaps the most surprising turnaround team this year.
Much like their opponent, the Rangers have been on a roll lately, also posting a 7-3-0 record in their last 10 games. John Tortorella has his team sold on his “jam” style of play and it’s really beginning to pay dividends, as the Rangers are tied with the Flyers for the division lead and are just one point away from the Bruins for the Conference lead.
Many NHL analysts had the Rangers pegged as another middle-of-the-pack team this year, claiming they didn’t have the identity, chemistry, or talent necessary to be considered elite in the NHL.
Boy, are the Rangers proving many, many people wrong.
The Rangers have had a seven-game winning streak as well as two five-game winning streaks, through only 35 games played. The Rangers have lacked consistency in years past, but they are arguably the most consistent team in the NHL this year. Consistency is what makes NHL teams elite.
Marian Gaborik is easily having one of the best years of his career, as he sits just one goal behind Steven Stamkos for the league lead in goals. The newest off-season high-profile acquisition, Brad Richards, is having a solid first campaign with the club, showcasing his extraordinary playmaking ability on a nightly basis. And Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, and rookie phenom Carl Hagelin are not only putting up the points for the team, they are also showing the league the identity that most teams desire.
Much like the Flyers, though, the Rangers have been hit with the injury bug. Their best defenseman, Marc Staal, sustained a concussion last year at the hands of his brother Eric and didn’t start feeling the symptoms until the summer, at which point Rangers management put him on long-term injured reserve. Unfortunately, one of their other staple defenseman, Michael Sauer, suffered the same fate earlier this year when he took a clean, hard shoulder from Toronto Maple Leafs defender Dion Phaneuf.
Despite losing two of their top defensemen to the concussion epidemic, the Rangers back-end has really stepped up their game. Dan Girardi, perhaps the NHL’s most underrated defenseman, and Ryan McDonagh lead all Rangers in ice time and have played with both poise and leadership. Add in Anton Stralman, Jeff Woywitka, and Michael Del Zotto, who is having a career year, complemented by world-class goaltender and future Vezina winner, Henrik Lundqvist, and you have one of the best defenses in the league. The Rangers are currently second in the NHL in goals against, which isn’t something most analysts would have envisioned coming into the season.
Photo courtesy of NHL.com
The Rangers currently hold the season series lead and all bragging rights, as they’ve beaten the Flyers twice this year – convincingly, mind you. Rest assured the Flyers will be searching for redemption in front of their home crowd and in front of millions of TV viewers.
This heated rivalry, which has been showcased on this year’s installment of HBO’s 24/7, will come to a head on January 2. Two teams, which have ridiculously passionate fan bases, will not only be fighting for respect, but also for the Division and possibly the Conference leads. Clearly, this will be a battle of two of the best teams in the NHL.
The setting could not be more perfect and the match-up between two teams, which share a very similar style of play and record, sets up to be a true classic.
Initial weather forecasts called for temperatures in the mid-40s with the potential for rain. However, the forecast now points to a wind chill approaching the freezing mark and most importantly, no rain.
No type of weather will affect the atmosphere around the stadium, though. It’s sure to be an electric one as fans of both teams will be throwing verbal jabs at each other in the stands throughout the game.
There’s always something special about bringing the game back to its roots. As Citizens Bank Park finishes its final preparations for the rink, everyone, from players to coaches to spectators, will get to be a part of the truly unique experience of witnessing what the sport is really about and where it all came from.
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