Another Classic

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You all know that out of all five of the NHL Winter Classic’s this one sparked my attention most of all.

I was so excited to watch my New York Rangers under the lights at Citizens Bank Park against the hated Philadelphia Flyers that I said to hell with any football being played on Monday.

I didn’t get out of bed until an hour before face-off. At this point Ohio State was down at the half to Florida, Penn State was getting creamed by Houston and the Big Ten was having another horrible New Years bowl day… So?

New Years Day used to be about sitting in front of your TV and veging out to a smorgasbord of football games. It was awesome getting to watch about ten bowls in one day culminating with the Rose Bowl at five and the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowls all at eight on three networks.

Well once the BCS came to fruition and spread out every bowl up until ten days after the New Year it rendered January 1st useless. Also with the SEC on top of all things football I’m not interested in watching the Big Ten get creamed in three games at one time.

Bowl season and January 1st used to mean something, instead the day turned into meaningless now that you can watch any one of 69 bowl games in a span of three weeks.

Then five years ago out of nowhere the NHL began a new tradition almost out of the blue. The inaugural Winter Classic was done without fanfare or much knowledge due to the NHL’s dwindling popularity after the NHL lockout.

I remember turning on my TV in the middle of the afternoon before work to see Pittsburgh take on Buffalo in a snow storm in front of a packed Ralph Wilson Stadium. I was shocked at first because I didn’t know that this game was supposed to be scheduled. If I would’ve known that Sidney Crosby was going to play in front of 73,000 people on New Years Day you best believe I would’ve cleared my schedule.

My eyes were fixated on the entire scene, the crowd was raucous throughout the entire game, the snow added an awesome prop to the game even though the snow caused a ton of ice problems, the classic jerseys were so cool I actually thought about buying a light blue Crosby jersey (then I came back to earth and realized I’m a Rangers fan). The game was a spectacle, and after Crosby scored the winning shootout goal I walked to work and couldn’t stop talking about the game.

The inaugural Winter Classic was something I had never seen before and as a huge hockey fan it had me wanting more. The NHL had discovered something, it had an event now that it could call it’s own and something that it could be known for. The question then became “what next?” Where could Gary Bettman take this game and make it bigger and bigger each time it was played? I think he figured it out and very well.

The next four classics have all been better than the previous one because Bettman has focused on keeping the games in hockey crazed cities and has featured his marquee players and teams.

The second classic featured the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings from Wrigley Field in a shootout that got to show the Blackhawks continue their resurgence to relevance oh and Patrick Kane’s silky game.

The third featured The Boston Bruins against the Flyers in a ultra physical matchup that ended with Milan Lucic scoring the overtime winner under the lights and led the NHL into an awesome Olympic tournament.

Last years Classic was a matchup of modern rivals and the leagues biggest star players Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals and Crosby’s Penguins from Heinz Field. It was another physical matchup that featured the Classic’s first fight and unfortunately the beginning of Crosby’s concussion problems. It was also the highest rated Classic because honestly were people going to watch Ovie versus Crosby or Oklahoma against UCONN in the Fiesta Bowl?

Then came this year’s Winter Classic. Once it was announced that my Rangers were battling the Flyers I immediately looked for every leak I could find from jerseys to legends game possibilities. When you have a team involved in such an event it pushes your interest into psycho mode.

My original plan was to go to the actual game with my buddy Scully who’s a huge Flyers fan. That changed once I saw how much tickets were in stubhub. $500 bucks a pop sounds about right for this type of game but not out if my pockets.

Instead waking up at 2 p.m. and throwing on my Rangers jersey and Starter jacket (yeah I have one if those still) would have to do.

The scene was more electric than all other Winter Classics except Buffalo. Say what you want about Philadelphia fans but they bring energy to their team’s games. It also helped that the Rangers and Flyers hate each others guts so there was a little bit more behind those Let’s Go Flyers chants than at a normal game.

The jerseys were the most simplistic of all of the Winter Classic events with the Flyers going with a darker orange color with really cool captains tags. The Rangers took it back to the early 20th century with a skinnier version of their shield logo and cream colored sweaters. Once I find a wholesale site that sells those I’m all over a Callahan #24.

The game itself was the most competitive of the five Classic’s. Both team’s were playing at the highest level possible and no one was slowing up at all. Brandon Dubinsky hit everything that moved in the first period with Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux countering for the Flyers.

The Flyers kept the puck in the Rangers zone for most of the first two periods but couldn’t break through on Henrik Lundqvist until rookie Braydon Schenn scored the first goal of the game off of the game. Minutes later Giroux found the back of the net on an odd-man rush to put the Flyers up by 2.

One minute later Mike Rupp cut the lead in half using a Flyers defenseman to shield Sergei Bobrovsky from seeing the puck as he ripped a wrist shot past him. He was booed lustily by Flyers fans not just for the goal but for imitating Jaromir Jagr’s goal salute after.

( Side note: I thought we were headed for a brawl at this point. There was so much aggression from both sides and the crowd was so into it that I thought someone was going to throw a punch a spark an on ice riot. The Rupp celebration almost did it. Rupp and Hartnell started barking at each other at the beginning of the third over the salute and it seemed like they were going to go. Unfortunately nothing came to fruition but that anticipation hungover for the remainder of the game.)

Once the third period began the Rangers began to make their move. They seemed to have fresher legs and got to every loose puck as the Flyers looked a little flat. The hard work paid off as Rupp scored again and tied the game at 2.

Flyers fans started getting nervous as the once raucous crowd grew silent and Rangers fans let their voices be heard amid the silence.

The Flyers play became erratic and they began to panic. Defenders overplayed the puck and it’s carrier and minutes after Rupp tied the game Brad Richards stood alone in the corner and was the only person near a rebound off of Callahan’s missed shot. Richards fired it into the net to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead and send the Rangers bench and yours truly into a frenzy.

As the Flyers tried to mount a comeback they were once again stalled by Lundqvist who was his normal brilliant self in this day. Lundqvist looked every bit like the gold medal winning goalie that he was at the 2006 Olympics as turned away the Flyers time and time again.

In the final minute with the Flyers clinging to their last life two calls drove me absolutely bonkers and looked like Gary Bettman made a personal call to the refs to make sure there was overtime.

The dive call on Callahan was dreadful as the replay showed he was clearly hooked from behind by Kimmo Timonen. It gave the Flyers another opportunity to have an extra attacker with it being 4 on 4 and Bobrovsky on the bench.

With the extra attacker the Flyers threw everything that they could at Lundqvist and with 20 seconds a shot almost squeaked through until Ryan McDonagh stopped the puck from crossing the line by sitting on it. By rule you can’t do that as a defender and the refs awarded Philadelphia a penalty shot. Imagine my face when this happened. I almost through my beer glass at the TV but harpoon is pretty pricey so I calmed down.

Of all of the Flyers to take the shot it had to be Daniel Briere. Briere has a knack for coming through when the Flyers need it most (case in point last years first round versus Buffalo) and with the game on the line who else could’ve taken it for them.

Briere skated in as the entire stadium, 47,000 people to be exact, rose to their feet. Briere tried to go five-hole but Lundqvist did what he did for most of the night, he turned the shot away and ended the Flyers last chance to extend the best game of 2012 in it’s early stages.

The Rangers 3-2 victory was easily the best of all 5 of the Winter Classic matchups. The game play was faster, more physical and had you on the edge of your seat up until the end.

So once again the question is, now what?

Who’s next to play in the NHL’s new spectacle? If it were up to me these five matches would make the most entertaining Winter Classic’s:

1. Detroit VS. Toronto from the Big House in Ann Arbor.

A great original six matchup in hockey hungry Michigan

2. Minnesota VS. Vancouver from Target Field.

Minnesota is a very competitive team and Minnesota has a great hockey history.

3. St. Louis VS. Chicago from Busch Stadium.

The city matchup says it all.

4. Washington VS. Tampa Bay from Nationals Stadium.

D.C. has grown into a good hockey town, plus Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos would light up the scoreboard.

5. Anaheim VS. San Jose from AT&T park.

A California Winter Classic? Hear me out on this. Start it at 8 pm when the temps hit 45 degrees. Northern Cali loves it Sharks and a matchup with Anaheim in a budding west coast rivalry would be a hit for the west coast market.

Whoever gets the opportunity next they have a lot to live up to. This year’s edition of the Classic pushed the game to a new height and left another great memory for those that got a chance to see it.

The Winter Classic has become the new way for sports fans to ring in the New Year and it looks like it’ll stay that way for awhile.

You can watch bowl games whenever you want. The Winter Classic is a treat that you look forward to once a year and continues to deliver.

Let’s hope Bettman doesn’t mess this up the way that college football did and add more outdoor games. Too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing.

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