In the end, the NHL’s premier in-season event could have been hosted in a back alley instead of a ballpark.
The 46,967 crammed into Citizens Bank Ballpark to watch the 266th meeting between the Rangers and Flyers witnessed mean-spirited, compelling hockey. And it was fitting that the first star of Monday afternoon’s Winter Classic was a grinder.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” John Tortorella said of Mike Rupp after the Rangers’ 3-2 win over the Flyers while wearing the Broadway Hat. Rupp scored twice for the Rangers and Brad Richards potted the game-winner. It was the Rangers’ third win in three games against Philadelphia this season. The Rangers lead the Flyers by four points in the Atlantic, and their 52 points are tied with Chicago for most in the league.
“It’s been very frustrating for him because he really hasn’t [had time to] join in and understand our team concept. But I tell you what he brings, there is a respect that he brings to that room. He’s a great pro. He brings an intangible.”
Henrik Lundqvist was phenomenal in making 34 saves, including a spectacular first period against a buzzing Flyers squad. He stopped all 12 Philadelphia shots in the first, including semi-breakaways by Clause Giroux and former Ranger Jaromir Jagr.
“You want to find a good balance. I’m always very focused going into the game and during the game but at the same time, you want to be able to enjoy this. I caught myself a couple of times being too relaxed and then a couple of times I just had to calm down,” Lundqvist said. “You want to find that perfect balance where you enjoy it but at the same time you get the job done. I felt like most of the time, I did that.”
However his teammates did not equal Lundqvist’s brilliance. At least, not early. The Rangers were unable to sustain puck-possession time in the Philadelphia end nor did they display creativity or intelligence for the majority of the first two periods.
It cost them when Brayden Schenn’s first NHL goal opened the scoring at 12:26 of the second period. The Flyers had outshot the Rangers 21-13 before Schenn’s goal. Nearly two minutes later, Claude Giroux increased the Flyers lead to 2-0 with a top-shelf backhander to conclude a 2-on-1 rush.
Rupp scored 30 seconds after Giroux’s goal with a shot under Bobrovsky’s glove to cut the deficit to 2-1. Signed away from Pittsburgh to a three-year, $4.5 million free agent contract on July 1, Rupp has brought a veteran presence to a relatively young Rangers squad.
The fourth line forward evened the game at 2-2 with his second goal of the game and third of the season at 2:41 of the third. Rupp and linemate Brandon Prust weaved through the Philadelphia zone before Rupp shoveled a low shot past Bobrovsky.
“Games like this it kind of gives guys like me more of an opportunity to get something ugly. My whole thinking is if I get a chance to shoot, I’m going to shoot,” Rupp said. “I threw it in and I think it banked off of him; it didn’t go straight in. You have to take those ugly ones.”
Richards tapped a Brandon Dubinsky rebound into a half-empty cage at 5:21 of the third to give the Rangers their first lead of the game, 3-2. The goal concluded a forechecking and cycling shift that included Ryan Callahan controlling the puck behind the Flyers goal.
“I thought when we put Dubi [with Callahan and Richards] it really helped,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think Richie’s line was playing well with Hags, him and Cally, and I thought Dubi was really good offensively. He struggled defensively on the boards in the second period, but offensively, he was finishing his checks. He held on to the pucks.”
The final minute was theatre of the absurd. Ryan Callahan was called for diving after being clotheslined by Kimmo Timonen, Lundqvist stoned Danny Briere on a penalty shot after Ryan McDonagh was called for closing his hand on the puck while in the crease and the game ended a five-on-five skirmish behind Lundqvist’s goal.
“Yeah, it’s pretty crazy,” Callahan said. “It’s how it is against the Flyers. Games are going to be close; we bunkered down there at the end of the period and defended well. Hank came up with the huge stop to save the game for us.”
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.