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The National Hockey League's 5th Winter Classic Jan. 2, 2012

Dec 27, 2011 3:05 AM

The idea of an outdoor professional hockey game may not be new – the Detroit Red Wings actually played a state prison team in sub-freezing conditions back in 1954 – yet the current incarnation of the NHL Winter Classic has captured the imagination of the American public.

Sure, its origins are based on the 2003 Heritage Classic held in Edmonton, but it was no big deal in Canada where everyone grew up playing on a frozen pond or a flooded backyard.

For the rest of us south of the 49th parallel, it quickly joined college football bowl games as a primary staple of our New Year’s Day television viewing habits, as the NHL’s contract with NBC recently was extended through 2021.

And just like the bowls, the fifth Winter Classic will be played on Jan. 2 in 2012 to avoid conflicts with NFL football, as the Philadelphia Flyers entertain division rival New York Rangers from Citizens Bank Park, the home of baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies.

In this battle of two of the four top clubs in the East (along with Boston and Pittsburgh), history tells us that UNDER is the way to go for obvious rationale: a custom-built rink means new ice, which is slow ice. Cold weather can slow down the action, thus limited opportunities translates into fewer goals.

Expect a total of 5.5/-140 UNDER or 5/-120 UNDER as an opening line.

Last season, the Winter Classic was a last-minute move to prime time due to rain, making UNDER an even better play since it was harder for the skaters (not the goalies) to see the puck due to all of the reflected light.

New York Rangers-Philadelphia Flyers

As for the head-to-head matchup, the Flyers lost captain Chris Pronger for the season (career?) due to "severe post-concussion syndrome," but center Claude Giroux recently returned from a knock to the melon.

Despite injury problems that rival the Minnesota Wild, some of the 11 rookies to play for the Flyers have contributed, including LW Tom Sestito (team-best three hits at Colorado last week) and C Ben Holmstrom, who is a wizard in the faceoff circle.

Philadelphia is among the worst teams when it comes to faceoffs, while the Rangers are strong when crossing sticks, so Holmstrom and veteran C Danny Briere may be the difference to slow the Rangers.

New York’s wins have come on fast sheets of ice. Included are 3-of-4 wins through Western Canada in October, plus several other victories at rinks located north of Madison Square Garden.

Plus, the first meeting resulted in a 2-0 Rangers win at home – another case for the UNDER to continue. Last Friday’s result went OVER on a meaningless, last-minute goal.

Despite NHL goal scoring leader Marian Gaborik of the Rangers (six goals in last four games) being a complete fraud in my mind (only four of his 21 tallies are against good teams, albeit, one vs. the Flyers a few days ago), the revenge factor for Philadelphia doesn’t make much sense considering all of the team’s injuries. Go with NYR.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

The Randy Cunneyworth situation is humorous. The French-language Montreal Gazette runs a headline in English just to get the new coach’s attention, letting him know the Habs are winless under his direction.

Someone tell the Quebec province’s culture minister to worry about France’s breast implant problem or fix the economy. These bleeding-heart liberals are the problem; allow the hockey people to worry about what happens inside the boards.

"Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi!" ("The King is dead. Long live the King.")

COLORADO AVALANCHE

Speaking of Quebec, ever since the Nordiques moved to Denver, the Avalanche have found success, including a Stanley Cup victory. Still, the team’s most successful string of home victories is the current eight-game run following a 2-1 overtime decision over Tampa Bay entering the Christmas break.

The Avs/Nordiques franchise has won eight straight home games twice previously, in the 1983-84 and 1994-95 seasons when the franchise was in Quebec. And with a 13-5-1 record in one-goal games, Colorado may be the best puck-line play in the NHL, especially when on the road.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

The second-hottest team in the East (behind Boston) owns five wins in the last six games and a 19-14-1 record, good enough for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Last year, New Jersey won its 19th game on Feb. 6. Still, the Devils stand fourth in the Atlantic, the new "toughest division" in the NHL.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The Capitals have reached a season total of 100 points four times. But they had 85 last season and are on pace for 59 this season. If the trend continues, Florida may be the poorest division champion since the 1994 Texas Rangers in baseball (52-62 before the strike).