‘Twas the last game before Christmas, and the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are both surging toward the highly anticipated Winter Classic on January 2nd. Both of these teams, the stars of HBO’s hit series 24/7, have given the network and fans alike plenty of entertainment. From a hockey marketing standpoint, the scenario could not be any better. The Flyers currently sit in first place in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, while the Rangers sit in second in the former, and fourth in the latter, just two points behind. Should the Blueshirts win tonight, they would take over first place, because they would have played one less game with one fewer loss, though both teams would have an identical number of wins.
The Rangers and Flyers have been two of the most exciting teams to watch, from plenty of goals being scored by Marian Gaborik and Claude Giroux, entertaining antics in the locker room, and finally, to the edges of the universe with Ilya Bryzgalov’s thought-provoking commentary. As much as I dislike the Flyers, it is nothing but great for hockey that both of these teams are having major success through the 30 game mark. Where would popularity for the show and outdoor game be if they were both sitting on the brink of the playoffs, and not dominating at the top of the conference? They have given us everything we could have asked for, and that is setting up for a very special matchup at Madison Square Garden tonight.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the stage is set: a battle for first place in New York City, right before Christmas, with both teams playing unbelievable hockey. Could you have asked for anything better? This will be the second game of the season against each other for the Rangers and Flyers, with the Rangers taking the first one 2-0 in late November. Normally, a matchup between these two teams would have an enormous amount of intensity, but can you imagine what tonight’s will be like? Neither one of these teams want to face the camera in front of millions of viewers after a loss, which guarantees a playoff atmosphere in a building that is sure to be rocking.
Henrik Lundqvist will be in goal for the Rangers, experiencing his lightest workload since his rookie season began in 2005, when he played only 53 games. While he will not play that few this season, he will not come close to the 70+ games he has reached in four of the last five seasons, if backup Martin Biron continues to play as well as he has, garnering a 7-1-0 record with a microscopic 1.84 GAA. Lundqvist, meanwhile, has himself a 13-7-4 record and a 2.03 GAA. For offense, Marian Gaborik continues to lead the way, notching his 20th goal of the season last night, which is good for a first-place tie with three other players. Gaborik, who had only 22 goals in nearly double the amount of games last year, is on pace to break the total he reached two seasons ago, when he scored 42 goals. It has definitely been a pleasant surprise, one that comes after a not-so pleasant season. I continue to remain impressed, especially after last night, where he was flying all over the place, getting to loose pucks, shooting every chance he got, setting up plays, and most importantly, skating around the area in front of the net, where he will score most of his goals from. His linemates, Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov, continue to share in the glory.
Perhaps the best thing John Tortorella did this season was breaking up Gaborik from Brad Richards, who was originally going to be his center. Richards, now finds himself with Ryan Callahan and the speedy rookie sensation Carl “Thanks for Dinner, Losers” Hagelin, on the second line. Recent defensive call-ups, Stu Bickel and Tim Erixon, have also fit right in during the Rangers’ recent rash of injuries. Both have impressed me with their steadiness, especially Bickel, who has become Chuck Norris-joke worthy, with the poster below:
The Rangers finally have a team that we can have fun watching, as they seem to be the closest group we have had on Broadway in quite some time, because of their willingness to stick up for one another and take the body when need be. Despite the imperfections, as all teams have, it truly has been a pleasure to watch them so far this season, and even if they do not win tonight, we can head into the holiday season with smiles on our faces.