Separated by a less-than-100-mile stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers share more in common than fans of either team would like to admit. Both are storied National Hockey League franchises at a crossroads; one is an original six member of the league, the other a franchise that undeniably changed the game. Their paths have collided more than a few times, but their styles remain similar in their grinding, hard-nosed approach. And both have some of the most devoted-you could say rabid-fans in the country.
This season, what separates them is the distinct route each is taking in order to achieve the goal of every NHL franchise: winning the Stanley Cup.
Last year, the Flyers were expected by many to reach the Cup finals for a second straight season, before being sent home early by the eventual champion Boston Bruins. In the offseason, they underwent a complete facelift, trading away their two most recognizable players for a younger, less-proven cast.
The Rangers, a team that retooled two years ago and found themselves losing to Alexander Ovechkin's Washington Capitals in the first round last season, mostly stayed pat, with one major exception. They hauled in star Brad Richards, whose arrival evokes images of the impact Mark Messier had on the Blueshirts in the early 1990s.
But before either team thinks about playing deep into the spring, both will meet on January 2 in Philadelphia's Citizen Bank Park for the 2012 Winter Classic, one of the NHL's premier showcase events.
The players can't wait for the opportunity. Many of them grew up playing hockey outside, whirling around on frozen ponds in December and January. Some have crossover appeal, like Flyers' fading star Jaromir Jagr, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins who also played for the Rangers for three years, then left to play in Russia and returned this year to the NHL with the Flyers.
"Beating the Rangers won't be any different than beating any other team" Jagr said. "What will be different is playing outside. I know it's going to be cold. It's going to be in front of a lot of people; that's what will be exciting and special about this."
The Rangers enter the Winter Classic a young team that took a vital, important first step last year. They possess one of the best goalies in the game in Henrik Lundqvist, and a talented young nucleus, the eye of which is Ryan Callahan, the Rangers' team captain, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky. Add in the 31-year-old Richards, who scored a career-best 28 goals for Dallas last year, and the Rangers have the potential to be explosive.
"We kept most of the guys over the summer, and picking up Brad Richards was key for us," said Lundqvist, who harbors some dark memories about the Flyers. On the last day of the 2010 regular season, a shootout victory ended the Rangers' season and propelled the Flyers' run to the Stanley Cup finals. "We had a pretty young team last year, people forget. Every year now feels like a learning process, where we get better and better.
"We have greater expectations this year. We don't want to be one of those four or five teams anymore near the end of the season fighting for a playoff spot. Our goal is to be in a better position than that."
Callahan, for one, is pleased the Rangers eschewed making the kind of wholesale changes Philadelphia did. He sees this young team developing. It just needs time, not to mention the patience of the Rangers faithful.
"At the end of the day, we did make the playoffs. We didn't have the kind of showing we wanted to, but it was something to build on. Then signing Richards was a difference maker. He's the kind of player who makes everyone around him better, and that's certainly happened in and out of the locker room. What surprised me were all the moves made down in Philly."
The moves surprised everyone. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were the faces of the Flyers' franchise. They grew up in the system, but Flyers' management grew weary of some dubious off-ice behavior and the lack of postseason production. So they shipped the brooding Richards to Los Angeles and banished Carter to NHL limbo, the Columbus Blue Jackets. In their place arrived Jagr, once a venomous target of the Flyer faithful.
Jagr was 18 when he broke into the NHL. He was Mario Lemieux's wingman back then, someone who could pierce a maze of defenders with his elongated, velvety strides. He's a little gray at the edges now. He's gone from a fresh-faced dynamo to a weathered sage in the locker room. The explosive thrusts up ice come more in sporadic gusts, the byproduct from the pounding and erosion of over a thousand NHL games.
The Flyers also added Wayne Simmons, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek and Columbus' first-round pick, 19-year-old Sean Couturier, who was a year old when Jagr won his first Cup in Pittsburgh. Grinders like Maxime Talbot have been brought on board to mix with the team's young rising stars.
The transition has consequently forced Flyers' coach Peter Laviolette to reconstruct a whole new team, mixing and matching the parts to come up with something competitive, all while managing the team's growing pains. Measured and balanced, though highly demanding in an understated way, Laviolette seems up for the task.
"I think the team that we have here is exciting to watch; I think we're still putting it together and there have been some growing pains at times with that," admitted Laviolette, a day after a shootout loss to New Jersey in early November. "We've been playing a lot of good hockey, and the times that we have had the growing pains, it's presented us with a chance to teach and address mistakes."
Where this was once Richards and Carter's team, it now belongs to budding superstar Claude Giroux, an electric talent who makes amazing things happen each time he has the puck.
Though he's still a relative newcomer (Giroux was called up during the 2008-2009 season), the historic rivalry isn't lost on the 24-year-old center. "I can't wait to play in the Winter Classic," he said. "Both teams really don't like each other, either, so that will make it even more intense. There are a lot of players on that team that we're not fans of, and I'm pretty sure they think the same way. We respect them-we just don't like them."
The magnitude of the rivalry isn't lost on the Rangers' marquee player either. "For the players, we each feel that special atmosphere when we play the Flyers, there's no question about that," Lundqvist said.
"A lot of my friends in New York say there is nothing bigger than the Philly-New York rivalry, and it's in every sport. They hate Philly. I mean they hate Philly. It's exciting to know this game will mean a lot to a lot of the fans of both teams. That's something as a player, when you're out there, it does affect the way you play. You feel that intensity and it makes you that much more intense. Personally, I try not to get too emotionally involved. But sometimes, you can't help it."