As 2011 comes to a close, the hockey world shifts its collective attention towards Citizens Bank Park, where the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers will square off in the fifth annual NHL Winter Classic on January 2.
New York and Philadelphia—both members of the Atlantic Division—match up well against each other. The two are firmly cemented in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, each very capable of bringing home the Stanley Cup this spring.
Considering the magnitude of this game, it's important to analyze the individual players that will affect the outcome the most. And with the Winter Classic being played outside, it's also important to note the differences between this particular contest and those that take place in the comfortable confines of indoor arenas.
Projected to be a bruising game between two bitter rivals, fans can expect a high level of physicality on Monday. The Winter Classic requires less finesse and more grit than the typical NHL clash, and that must be taken into account when predicting who will have the biggest impact.
And with that, let us examine the 15 most important players in the 2012 Winter Classic.
Since joining the Flyers, Danny Briere has been one of the most valuable forwards on Philadelphia's roster.
Formerly a first-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, Briere joined Philly in 2007 as a free agent. An injury-plagued season in 2008-09 notwithstanding, he's been a consistently premier goal scorer in recent years, averaging approximately 30 goals in three full, healthy seasons with the Flyers.
Briere, 34, hasn't enjoyed his typical success so far this season, scoring just 10 goals in 33 games. But he remains a quality top-six forward, even if his play has tapered off a bit.
One of the hardest working players in the NHL, Wayne Simmonds has made a smooth transition to Philadelphia following a trade from Los Angeles this summer.
The former second-round pick has transitioned from a penalty killer with the Kings to a power-play mainstay with the Flyers, tallying five PPG so far this season, good for 15th in the league in that category. His 10 total goals thus far puts him on pace for the best season of his young career.
Simmonds, 23, possesses a high level of physicality as well as a nice scoring touch—a combination that will make him valuable in the Winter Classic.
Veteran forward Brad Richards has played well in his first season in New York, but perhaps not to the standards of the unforgiving Ranger faithful.
After signing a nine-year, $60 million contract this summer, Richards became the NHL's highest-paid player for the 2011-12 season. But despite his deep pockets, the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner is off his usual pace (just 12 goals so far) and is pointless in his last five games.
Nonetheless, Richards should play a prominent role during the Winter Classic, as his elite ability will allow him to earn his fair share of scoring chances against Philadelphia.
Andrej Meszaros, a 6'2'' defenseman, has been a pleasant surprise in his first two years with the Flyers.
During his time in Tampa Bay, the former first-round pick was criticized for his lack of toughness. But the Broad Street Bully has been one of Philadelphia's most physical players this season, leading the team with 87 hits.
Averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game with a plus-four plus/minus rating, the Slovakian blueliner has been a stable force for the Flyers since being acquired two summers ago for a second-round pick.
Ryan McDonagh, one of the top up-and-comers in the NHL, is quietly having a strong season for the Rangers.
A member of New York's top defensive pairing, the Minnesota native is making a name for himself at the young age of 22. Averaging 25:15 of ice time, McDonagh has gained the trust of head coach John Tortorella and has given every indication he can blossom into a premier hockey player.
McDonagh will likely spend the majority of the Winter Classic pinned against Philadelphia's dangerous top line (Hartnell/Giroux/Jagr), giving him an opportunity to shine (or crumble) under the spotlight.
Making his much-anticipated return to the NHL after a three-year hiatus, Jaromir Jagr has been a vital piece to Philadelphia's lethal offense.
After the departures of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards this summer, the Flyers were in search of a viable replacement up front. Jagr has filled that hole, proving that he is an ageless wonder.
Drafted more than 20 years ago, the former MVP and two-time Stanley Cup champion still possesses the elite skills we grew accustomed to throughout his illustrious career. Through 32 games, he has 31 points and is a plus-12 as a member of the Flyers' first line.
Ryan Callahan, the 26th captain in Rangers history, may not be the most offensively gifted player in the league, but he makes up for it with his intangibles and toughness.
Only several months into his captaincy, the 5'11'' right wing has seemingly won over New York's locker room with his physical style. Callahan's 119 hits are far and away the most on his team, and his 40 blocked shots are the highest among Ranger forwards.
Scott Hartnell, in the midst of his fourth season with the Flyers, has been on a rampant pace in 2011-12.
With 17 goals and a plus-21 plus/minus rating, the former Nashville Predator has been one of Philadelphia's most important players this year. Currently the left wing on the Flyers' vaunted first line, the former sixth overall pick will get his fair share of chances during the Winter Classic.
A gritty forward who often drives to the net and scores off rebounds and second chances, Hartnell may have the best chance of success of any player for either team on Sunday, as the outdoor game caters to his style of play.
Already one of the most well-rounded defensemen in the league, Michael Del Zotto has quickly become the face of the Rangers' blue line.
His 21 points and plus-23 plus/minus rating rank 16th and second amongst NHL D-men, respectively. At just 21 years old, Del Zotto has emerged as an early dark-horse candidate for the Norris Trophy, and with a terrific supporting cast, there is every reason to believe he will become one of the best at his position.
With intelligence beyond his age, the former OHL standout has elite offensive instincts in addition to improving play in his own end. Del Zotto has been playing as good as ever in recent weeks, accumulating 10 points in his past 12 games.
Currently the best defenseman on Philadelphia's roster, Kimmo Timonen will undoubtedly play a major role in the 2012 Winter Classic.
Leading his team in both power-play and short-handed ice time, Timonen has been an unsung hero this season for the Flyers.
The Finland native's 22 assists rank third among NHL blueliners, as he remains one of the finest puck-moving defensemen in the league. Timonen, 34, is responsible in his own end as well, earning a plus-23 plus/minus rating in his 118 games since joining the Flyers.
Often under-appreciated, Dan Girardi is one of the toughest defensemen in the league.
Leading the Rangers in ice time (27:24 per game), Girardi is the anchor of New York's blue line. With physicality taking on a new level of significance during the Winter Classic, expect Girardi to make a big impact on Sunday.
The former undrafted free agent likes to throw his body around, leading New York defensemen in hits this season with 91. Perhaps most importantly, Girardi is as disciplined as they come; he only has eight penalty minutes this season despite his rough style of play.
Along with McDonagh, Girardi will most likely be tasked with covering the Flyers' top line, one that must be shut down for the Rangers to come away with a victory.
Easily the most productive forward on the Rangers' roster, Marian Gaborik figures to play a major role in this year's Winter Classic.
Second in the NHL with 22 goals, Gaborik will be Philadelphia's number one target on Monday. Known for his ability to play his best when it matters most, the Slovakian right wing has been playing some of the best hockey of his career, scoring seven goals in his last six games.
Claude Giroux's impact on the Flyers cannot be understated—his 46 points account for 37.4 percent of Philadelphia's offensive output, which is currently second in the NHL. Widely considered the best player on his team, the 23-year-old forward is an early favorite for the Hart trophy and should play a significant role in the Winter Classic.
Despite missing time due to a concussion, Giroux seems to be close to full strength; the Ontario native notched a goal and three assists in his return to action on December 21.
Second in the league with five game-winning goals, Giroux has a knack for coming through in the clutch. Don't be surprised if the he becomes the hero come January 2.
As of Friday morning, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has yet to name a starting goaltender for the Winter Classic.
Ilya Bryzgalov has made a name for himself in recent weeks with his outlandish antics and lessons on the cosmos, but his play between the pipes is what fans care about the most.
While he currently sports a respectable 14-8-3 record, the 6'3'' netminder has left a lot to be desired in his first season with the Flyers. Bryzgalov's 3.01 GAA and .890 save percentage are both below average—not what fans expected when Philadelphia signed him to a nine-year, $51 million contract this summer.
Bobrovsky, on the other hand, has played extremely well in his second year in the league. With an 8-2-1 record, 2.52 GAA and .914 save percentage, he's been superior to his Russian counterpart in just about every way possible.
While Bobrovsky is technically the backup, it's hard to argue with the numbers.
For the Flyers to beat the Rangers, Philadelphia will need a strong performance in goal, regardless of who gets the nod.
Henrik Lundqvist, a two-time NHL All-Star, is one of the best goaltenders in the world.
The only player in NHL history to win 30-plus games in his first six seasons, he continues to impress in 2011, posting a 1.95 GAA and .936 save percentage so far.
The Flyers are currently second in the league in scoring, meaning the spotlight will be on New York's netminder for the entirety of the Winter Classic. Luckily for the Swedish superstar, recent history plays in his favor: He's 3-1 in his last four games against the Flyers with one shutout.