After weeks of anticipation, three episodes of Ilya Bryzgalov's nonsensical ramblings and countless hours spent constructing the rink, the 2012 Winter Classic is upon us.
Despite all the hype surrounding the game, the Flyers and Rangers are still battling for a mere two points, albeit against a hated division rival. New York and Philly are locked in a tight division race along with Pittsburgh, so every point is huge, especially when the entire hockey world will be watching.
Let's break this game down.
The Philadelphia Flyers are second in the league in goals per game this season, but it has been a different story when they meet up with the Rangers. In two meetings thus far this season, the Rangers have won twice by a combined score of 6-2. The Rangers have the league's second best defensive unit, and that will mean Claude Giroux and company will have their hands full trying to create open space to set up the offense.
Philly's first line is going to have to set the tempo early in the game. Scott Hartnell is vicious on the forecheck, but he needs to avoid taking an early penalty. The Flyers were in top form offensively against the Penguins, and I would expect them to bring that same type of intensity in front of their home crowd today.
While the Rangers haven't put up staggering offensive numbers in the neighborhood of the Flyers and Bruins, the group still ranks among the top 10 scoring units in the league. Marian Gaborik has found his stride once again. He is second in the league with 22 goals this season.
The offensive success has not translated when New York has the man advantage, however. The Rangers are converting just over 15 percent of power play chances. The Flyers are prone to penalties, which could put some pressure on the Rangers top power play unit to get it done.
Chris Pronger's head injury has left the Flyers in a tough spot defensively. Kimmo Timonen is putting together an all-star campaign, but Philly lacks depth on the blue line. Braydon Coburn has been a disappointment this season, and while Marc Andre-Bourdon has been an effective call up, he is plagued with inconsistent play that is common to see from a rookie.
Talent runs six rear guards deep for the Flyers. But getting each of the defenseman to put together 60 minutes of hockey has been an issue.
As I touched on earlier, the Rangers rank second in the league in goals against average. A lot of that number can be attributed to Henrik Lundqvist, but the talent and mentality of the Rangers blue line deserves a ton of credit for the success New York has had. This team does a terrific job of taking away time and space, which is particularly important against a free-wheeling team like the Philadelphia Flyers. If they can limit the puck possession of Claude Giroux, it becomes difficult for the Flyers offense to operate efficiently.
After an 0-3-1 stretch during the filming of HBO's 24/7, Ilya Bryzgalov was benched against the Pittsburgh Penguins in favor of Sergei Bobrovsky. The second-year goaltender put forth an outstanding effort in a victory over the Penguins and has earned a second straight start against another hated, divisional rival.
Bobrovsky is playing with a lot more confidence this season, and he is definitely the obvious choice to start the Winter Classic. Bryzgalov has been distracted by the bright lights and cameras that have followed this team for the last month or so. He needs a chance to reset his mind and really focus completely on stopping pucks. In the meantime, Bobrovsky is more than capable of shouldering the load.
What can I say that hasn't already been said about Henrik Lundqvist? He is arguably the best goalie in the league, and he is on top of his game coming into the Winter Classic. It is more than fair to say that the Rangers have a significant goaltending edge in this game.
There are very few trends that support either team in this game. Both teams are going to come out fired up and ready to play.
I'm going with the Flyers in this game, but it is going to be a close one. The Flyers get the chance to play in front of their home crowd and are coming off a big victory on Friday night. The Rangers are equally hot coming into this game, but I'm siding with the home team.
Flyers 3 Rangers 1