Saturday, December 31, 2011

Gainer's Winter Classic Preview

Preview: 2012 NHL Winter Classic; 5th Edition; “The Classic”
  • Date/Time: January 2, 2012 @ 1 PM at Citizens Bank Park (home of the Philadelphia Phillies) on NBC
  • New York Rangers (21-8-4, 46 pts) at Philadelphia Flyers (21-9-4, 46 pts); Tied for first in Atlantic Division
  • All-Time Series:  Philadelphia Flyers, 114-112-37 (263 meetings)--  First 11/16/67 --> Flyers 3-2 @ Philadelphia)
    • Previous Meetings this season:
      • 12/23/11  New York Rangers, 4-2 @ Madison Square Garden
      • 11/26/11  New York Rangers, 2-0 @ Madison Square Garden

Gainer’s Four Keys to the “Ice Bowl” victory:
1. The Atmosphere

One cannot ignore where and how this game is being played.  With the Winter Classic becoming an annual tradition, the players and coaches look forward to playing in it.  It brings back the pond hockey memories of their youth and truly is a spectacle any sports fan can enjoy.  On top of that, the addition of the HBO Films series 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic that started last year, fans can further connect to the teams through a behind-the-scenes journey of the month surrounding the event.  This is the one game a year where weather can play a factor.  The first Winter Classic in Buffalo back in 2008 had snow falling which forced teams to switch sides every 10 minutes.  In Pittsburgh last year, it rained and was nearly 50 degrees outside.  We are a week away and the Philadelphia forecast is calling for rain and in the mid 40s similar to last year’s game.  On top of the weather, there is the crowd.  The set up is an ice rink right in the middle of a baseball stadium similar to 2 previous Winter Classics held at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.  This creates an unusual setting.  Yes there will be nearly 44,000 people in attendance which doubles even the largest NHL arenas but the fans are not on top of the rink.  This will be an adjustment for both teams, especially sight lines for goaltenders, but overall a quick adjustment once the game gets going.  ADVANTAGE: Philadelphia Flyers (an already avid fan base, outside, for a hockey game?! Could get ugly…)

2. The Goalies: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Ilya Bryzgalov

The goalies are the true stars of this year’s Winter Classic.  Henrik Lundqvist of Swedish descent has played his entire career for the Rangers since 2005.  In 2006, 2007, and 2008, he was nominated for the Vezina Trophy given annually to the NHL’s top goaltender and is the only goalie to record 30 wins in each of his first six seasons.  In the 2006 Winter Olympics, he led Sweden to their second gold medal as well.  “King Henrik” has nearly average 70 starts a year is a workhorse.  Only 1 season did he not help the Rangers qualify for the playoffs and it was on the final shot of a shootout in the final regular season game against their very opponent of this game, the Flyers.  Ilya Bryzgalov is in his first season with the new look Philadelphia Flyers, he was the big off-season signing for the Flyers who are historically known for never having the “go to” goalie.  He was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks and was the back-up goalie for the Stanley Cup winning team of 2007.  In the 2010 season, he was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy with the Phoenix Coyotes.  He helped lead the team that season back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 with 42 victories.  Bryzgalov is quickly becoming a fan favorite with his extremely odd personality garnered through his appearances on HBO’s 24/7:  Road to the Winter Classic.  With two of the perennial top goaltenders in the NHL since the lockout, this game could come down to who makes the big save.  ADVANTAGE:  Lundqvist NYR (He is the anchor of a top flight defensive team and 7th ranked penalty killing unit)

3. Top Forwards of Hartnell-Giroux-Jagr vs. Gaborik-Richards-Callahan

Both squads have a little different look this year compared to last year.  The Rangers still have Marian Gaborik the sniper but Callahan has the “C” on his sweater this season and has become quite the force.  The big change is the guy up the middle in Brad Richards who comes to re-unite with Coach Tortorella from their Tampa Bay Lightning championship back in 2004 before the lockout.  Richards comes over from Dallas where he blossomed into a top flight center and signed a big contract in the Big Apple.  The biggest change though comes in Philadelphia where Captain Mike Richards and Alternate Captain Jeff Carter were BOTH traded in the SAME day this past offseason.  Only 2 years removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance against Chicago, General Manager Paul Holmgren decided it was time for a change.  By trading these 2 All-Stars, the team is putting their focus on young stud Claude Giroux and frankly, he has been more than advertised even with a concussion so far this season.  On top of that, the Flyers brought it former Penguin Jaromir Jagr who returns from a multiple year hiatus in Russia.  I don’t have to say what kind of player JJ is, one of the all-time greats.  These 2 flanking each other has also re-energized Scott Hartnell into producing his finest year yet.  It’s safe to say these 6 guys can put the puck into the net.  ADVANTAGE:  Hartnell-Giroux-Jagr  PHI (Giroux is the NHL leading point scorer and is making Jagr young again)

4. The Head Coaches:  John Tortorella vs. Peter Laviolette

Tortorella of the Rangers and Laviolette of the Flyers both bring a championship pedigree to this matchup.  Torts won it with Tampa and Brad Richards back in 2004, the last season before the lockout, over the Calgary Flames and Laviolette won it with Carolina Hurricanes back in 2006 over the Edmonton Oilers, the first year back from the lockout.  They are both extremely well respected throughout the league and know how to relate to current day players.  Laviolette is in his 3rd year behind the bench of the Flyers after getting to the Finals with the team back in 2010 and losing in the second round, embarrassingly, to the future champs, Boston Bruins.  His challenge has been incorporating the new look forwards and a franchise goal tender into his system.  He’s also dealing with not having his Captain Chris Pronger who’s out for the season with a concussion.  As a Penguins fan, I know how challenging it is to lose your Captain for the whole season.  Tortorella is in his 4th season behind the bench of the Rangers.  Two of the past three seasons, he has not been able to get the team out of the first round of the playoffs.  However with newly acquired center Brad Richards, expectations are high for this squad.  Torts is known for his fiery attitude and brings an intensity behind the bench.  His Rangers team has been known for its goaltending and strong defense over the past couple years even without the long term loss of their top defensemen too in Marc Staal due also to a concussion.  Bringing an offensive mindset to a team has paid off being a top 10 team in goal scoring.  As an added bonus, these coaches are 1-2 ALL TIME in wins for U.S. born NHL coaches.   ADVANTAGE:  Tortorella – NYR (has his team in the top 10 in both goals per game offensively and defensively and have the 2-0 edge this season out of their 6 match-ups)

PREDICTION:  New York Rangers 3, Philadelphia Flyers 2.  The trend is official as the team with a 2nd Winter Classic appearance hosting loses.  This is scrappy, physical and penalty filled.  The goalies come up big but the Rangers pick up the big goal in the third to seal the deal.