Winter Classic 2012, Flyers Vs. Rangers: A Game That Matters In Fight For First Place

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 23: Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Philadelphia Flyers has words with Ryan Callahan #24 of the New York Rangers on December 23, 2011 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

With the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers each chasing first place in the East, the NHL's made-for-TV Winter Classic event will again feature a matchup that matters.

Beyond pulling off a successful annual made-for-TV event -- no seriously, just look at those dreadful seating angles at Citizens Bank Park -- the NHL has historically pulled off another coup with its annual Winter Classic: It's always a game that matters in the standings.

This year is no different, and might even be the best yet.

The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are tied for second place in the Eastern Conference with 48 points each, one point behind the Boston Bruins. Depending on how the Rangers do Friday night in Florida and how the Bruins do Saturday night in Dallas, both combatants in the 2012 Winter Classic could have a shot at leaping each other for the Atlantic Division lead -- and at leaping Boston for the conference lead.

Of course the NHL can't plan such a high-stakes matchup, having to select a location and participants well before the season begins. But while television markets and climate are always prevailing factors, history shows the NHL usually picks a competitive pair of teams for this annual outdoor event.

WINTER CLASSIC MEMORY LANE

The inaugural Winter Classic in 2008 was probably the weakest matchup, though that year was blessed by the hype that accompanies an original experiment -- and the luck of great-for-TV snowflakes falling as Sidney Crosby scored the shootout winner. Still, that year saw the Pittsburgh Penguins enter play as part of a four-way tie for sixth place in the East, while the Buffalo Sabres were two points outside of that tie, in tenth.

Hardly playoff contenders at that point, the Penguins would nonetheless ascend to the Stanley Cup Final just six months later.

The 2009 Winter Classic saw the only Western Conference matchup thus far, with Central Division rival Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings entering play separated by six points in the top two spots in their division, the Wings in second place in the conference.

The Red Wings were defending Stanley Cup champions (having beaten those Penguins in the Final) and the Blackhawks hadn't even made the playoffs the previous year. But an intensity was already re-igniting among the longtime rivals with the Blackhawks on the rise. While the Wings would return to the Cup Final that season, the Blackhawks would replace them, and win the Cup themselves, a year later.

The 2010 Winter Classic featured a return to the East and a return to featuring a team on the outside of the playoff picture on the day of the game. Of course, that team, the Philadelphia Flyers, would go on to reach the Stanley Cup Final anyway, much like the Pens in '08. The Boston Bruins hosted the ninth place Flyers that year and entered the game in fifth place in the East, seven points ahead of the Flyers. (Ironically, the team two points ahead of the Flyers on that day, the Rangers, would miss the playoffs entirely thanks to a thrilling home-and-home series with the Flyers on the final weekend of that season.)

Finally, last year's Classic pitted the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Washington Capitals, two teams who entered play just four points apart at the top of the Eastern Conference. When the first-place Penguins lost 3-1 at Heinz Field to the fourth-place Capitals, it cut the margin separating the two rivals in half. Neither team would go on to see playoff success that spring -- each fell to the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning -- but they finished the 2010-11 season with two of the top three records in the East.

Once again, the NHL had chosen wisely.

So while the weather forecast for the 2012 Winter Classic is still a wild card -- but getting better each day -- one thing won't change whether the game is played Monday, Jan. 2, as scheduled, or the next day if weather interferes: The two teams who show up for battle will be holding two of the best records in the league.

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