Monday, January 02, 2012

Fifth Annual Winter Classic holds few surprises

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Magazine

Lost in the Flyers' 3-2 defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers on Monday afternoon from the rollicking cauldron that is Citizens Bank Park was...well...nothing really.

It all was very apparent from my perch in Section 105, Row 9, Seat 18. Neither wind, nor snow, nor partially-blocked sightlines could keep me from these appointed rounds.

Like I said on Twitter a few days ago, if there was a choice between sitting in the press box or attending as a fan and being able to enjoy myself on a special occasion like today, I'll choose the latter every time.

Primarily because this was a battle between the top two teams in the Atlantic Division who are jockeying for playoff position this early, the game began in as exciting a fashion as your typical chess match featuring Big Blue.

Where talk previously existed from both sides about getting back to one's roots and playing the game they knew as children in the great outdoors, all that was left once the puck was dropped was a cautious pace -- as if both head coaches, finished with the distractions from their HBO 24/7 invasion, admonished their clubs not to embarrass themselves on national television.

The Flyers ran out of gas after going up 2-0 in the second period. You have to commend the Rangers for pulling it all together and making a charge over the final half of the game.

Sergei Bobrovsky's awful short-side goal given up to Michael Rupp late in the middle period should have quieted any of the pro-Bob, anti-Bryz chatter long enough to make anyone realize that neither goaltender is truly capable of doing a stellar job for more than one game at a time.

While both fan bases can debate the merit of the delay-of-game call to Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh inside the final 20 seconds, it remains to be seen how Danny Briere managed to shoot the puck less like himself and more like Dan Carcillo with the game on the line.

Aside from the game itself, what struck me as odd was the near-total lack of functional interplay between the two fan groups.

OK, so there was the obligatory shoving/shouting match between young Flyers and Rangers fans two sections over which caused mutual ejections in the early stages of the third period, but from the moment I touched down in the lot on Darien Street until the final buzzer sounded, things seemed too civil.

Two years ago, in Boston, it was a constant tug of war, a battle of wits between the motormouthed New Englanders and the Philadelphian interlopers who managed to snag a ring of the best seats from the third-base side around to the first-base side. Never ones to take even the simplest of provocations, Bostonians traded some choice barbs back and forth with the Flyers faithful in the concourses and in the seats of venerable Fenway Park.

But there was none of that today. And it felt very weird. It was as if the lack of a roof and solid walls around these perennial combatants allowed all the animus to float above the fray, with no real targets in mind and no boundaries to hold them. Words were exchanged but fell on deaf ears. Both sides traded the usual "sucks" chants but it sounded half-hearted. Even the perfunctory "Crosby sucks" interjection felt tacked on, rote, obvious.

That's not what I came to see. Granted, I didn't pay top dollar to witness an all-out assault on anyone wearing the red, white and blue, but a very odd thing occurred -- the wonder of the day itself cornered much of the distaste one side had for the other. A good Christian man's war finally had its own version of the Christmas truce.

It even lasted through New York's valiant rally, and the cries over suspect officiating, the missed penalty shot, and finally spilled out into the streets of South Philadelphia. Maybe there's hope yet for The Big Apple and its Little Brother as long as the possibility of future Winter Classics exists.

At the end of the day, beyond the hyperbole and the hand-wringing, it's fair to say the Rangers own the Flyers.

Three wins in three meetings -- all in regulation -- mean that Philly won't have the benefit of tiebreakers at the end of the seasoneven if they manage to sweep the remaining matchups. That's a killer because in all likelihood four of the five Atlantic teams will be postseason viable. And yes, two points lost on January 2 will have a ripple effect come April.

But again, none of this was divined by any special means on Monday afternoon. The cards were already laid on the table and just needed to be viewed in order to reveal the ultimate fortune for both sides.

All it took was some badly needed daylight and a stiff wind to blow away the chatter to make the outcomes crystal clear. The Flyers are still not up to snuff in vital areas, but it sure was refreshing to watch them in a new setting.

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