Amid all the pomp and circumstance -- from HBO’s 24/7 cameras following their every move to all the hype surrounding the 2012 Winter Classic -- the Rangers know what’s at stake on Friday night against the Flyers: four points.
The heated rivals will meet one another at Citizens Bank Park on Jan. 2, but before that, they’ll square off at Madison Square Garden. All season-long they’ve been fighting for control of the Atlantic Division -- just two points seperate them right now -- and the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. In the grand scheme of things, this one is just as big as that one -- even if it’s only a preview of what’s to come.
“There’s a lot of build-up for the show and the classic, but for us there’s two teams that are at the top of the conference right now,” third-line left winger Brandon Dubinsky said after the Blueshirts took care of business, beating the cellar-dwelling Islanders, 4-2, on Thursday night.
“That alone will make the game intense and make it live up to all the build and all the b---s--- that’s going to come with it too.”
The fans and media may already be looking forward, but the Rangers certainly aren’t. This week, they’ve already knocked off a pair of Atlantic Division foes in New Jersey and the Isles. And they’d love nothing more than to close out a three-game sweep heading into their holiday break.
“We’re two games into it and we have two wins,” No. 1 defenseman Dan Girardi said. “Our goal is to win all three games and [Friday night] is going to be a huge game with the Winter Classic build-up going on. It’s just another hockey game, but it’s against a really good team and it’s going to be a battle.”
With the Rangers and Flyers, it always is. Both teams are absolutely loaded with top-tier talent: both young and old. Their stars -- like Marian Gaborik and Claude Giroux -- are shinning bright, while emerging talents such as Michael Del Zotto and Sean Courturier have risen to the challenge and played wise beyond their years. And if that isn’t enough, these two teams don’t like each other. Never have.
“It’s going to be one of those games, a preview for the Winter Classic, so everyone is anxious for that game,” said Gaborik, who is tied for the NHL lead with 20 goals. “We have to get a jump in the game right away and keep it to short shifts. It’s always physical, so we just have to play our game and use our strength and try to wear them down.”
The Rangers didn’t play perfect hockey on Thursday night, but they certainly didn’t take the Islanders for granted. Dubinsky snapped a 17-game scoring drought, Artem Anisimov’s nifty set play off a faceoff set up Gaborik for his fifth goal in three games, Del Zotto saved a goal at one end and scored one on the other and Martin Biron played nothing like a backup, making 24 saves to improve to 7-1-0 on the season.
“No disrespect to the Islanders, but I know our players are looking to that Philly game,” coach John Tortorella said. “I don’t think we were great [Thursday night], but I don’t think we got ahead of ourselves.”
Dubinsky and the rest of his teammates will be ready to go by the drop of the puck.
“We have 60 minutes to lay it on the line [Friday night],” Dubinsky said. “It’s gonna be an intense game and I now our guys are gonna be up to the test.”