The New York Rangers have not been playing their best hockey since last weekend's All-Star break, as they fell to the New Jersey Devils in a heartbreaking shootout on Tuesday, and then managed to defeat the Buffalo Sabres a night later, 1-0, despite a very poor showing from the team in that game. As we all know, these games that follow All-Star Weekend are the most crucial to the club's short-term future since they will decide the team's fate as far as playoffs go. Through two games here, the Blueshirts have not looked like a playoff team in my opinion, but that will need to change when they host their most hated rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, in a Winter Classic rematch this afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
In three prior meetings with Philadelphia this season, New York has gathered six points in the standings by winning each game in regulation time. The first came on November 26, when the Rangers shut the Flyers out, 2-0, at MSG. Then, just a few weeks prior to the Winter Classic, the Rangers beat the Flyers again, 4-2, in front of their home crowd. The most recent installment of the rivalry, however came on January 2 when the 2012 Winter Classic was brought to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Mike Rupp's squad found themselves down two goals in the second period, but his back-to-back tallies brought them back into the game before Brad Richards' eventual game-winner gave New York their third straight victory over Philly.
Today the Rangers will look to make it four straight in the two teams' first match-up since that eventful day at Citizens Bank Park. With all of the hoopla and excitement that preluded the main event back on January 2, the Rangers-Flyers rivalry has become even larger this season, as difficult as that is to believe. There is a pretty ugly hatred between the two cities when they square off on the hockey rink, so you can expect another playoff atmosphere during today's matinee in Manhattan.
Philadelphia will be playing their third game in four days today, after defeating the Nashville Predators, 4-1, on Thursday but then getting embarrassed by the Devils yesterday in a 6-4 defeat at home. In fact, the Flyers went down by six goals to New Jersey in that game yesterday after two periods that their effortless play caused forward Scott Hartnell to claim he was "embarrassed to be a Flyer" at the time. They did their best to mount a comeback in the third period by scoring four unanswered goals, but it just wasn't enough to cover the six-goal spread.
Sergei Bobrovsky was absolutely horrendous in that tilt, surrendering six goals on just 23 shots. I think we can expect to see Ilya 'Universe' Bryzgalov between the pipes for Philadelphia after that performance by Bob yesterday.
The Claude Giroux-Jaromir Jagr duo is always highly dangerous each night for the Flyers, but the Rangers will also need to keep an eye on forward Wayne Simmonds today as well. Simmonds has three goals in two games since the All-Star break, so he's a player that's starting to heat up again and give Philly some important secondary scoring. As we've seen, this team gets scoring from a variety of sources, much like the Rangers do, and those are the hardest teams to defend.
From a Rangers standpoint, every part of their game needs to show improvement compared to what we saw in Buffalo, except for goaltending of course. Henrik Lundqvist was the one and only reason the Rangers came out with a win in that contest, but he cannot be relied on to carry the load each night at this point in the season - that's not how a contending team operates. The Rangers need that balanced effort and production throughout their entire lineup in this game, because that's the only way they are beating this hockey club. Yes, the Flyers have not beaten the Rangers yet this season, but New York has played some extremely strong hockey against them in each of those games. We need to see that again today.
The powerplay will get its chances today, just as it always does when the Rangers meet the Flyers. Those chances, though, need to be capitalized on. The Rangers may be leading the Eastern Conference right now, but they are 26th in the league with the man advantage. That's disgusting and if it hasn't already started to, their lack of execution on the powerplay is going to start costing them points in the standings - mark my words.
Lastly, Brad Richards has game-winning goals in two out of the three Ranger wins over the Flyers this season. He's slumped majorly as of late, and quite frankly, his effort has been very poor. The Flyers, though, are a team that he seems to get up for, so let's see if this is what he needs to break out of the drought he is currently going through. Richards' scoring helps the team a lot when it actually happens, and games like these are when the Rangers need that production most.
New York Rangers (Probable) Lineup