NEW YORK -- If the first meeting of the 2011-12 season between the Rangers and Flyers is an indication of what will take place at the NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2, get ready for the most physical and intense outdoor game in the League's history.
A fight between Brandon Prust of the Rangers and Zac Rinaldo of the Flyers took place four seconds after the opening faceoff, then Prust dropped the gloves again 11 minutes later to square off against Wayne Simmonds. It lit the fuse on an extremely intense, physical matinee at Madison Square Garden that ended with a 2-0 Rangers victory Saturday afternoon.
The two spirited bouts ignited the Rangers, who were playing their second game in as many days and needed the boost against their equally exhausted Atlantic Division rivals.
"He does it for us all the time," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said of Prust. "He's not the biggest guy. Pound for pound, he has to be one of the toughest guys in the League."
Brad Richards' power-play goal in the second period was the winner. Rookie Carl Hagelin scored his first NHL goal in the third period to give the Rangers some breathing room. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist wasn't overly challenged in making 29 saves for his second shutout of the season and seventh win in eight games. The win moved the Rangers to 6-1-1 at home.
Last year, the Rangers went 2-5-1 in their first eight games at MSG.
The story Saturday was the slugfest that took place throughout the game but especially in the first period, when it was the 6-foot, 192-pound Prust delivering punishing blows to Rinaldo and Simmonds. There was a playoff atmosphere in the building, something that would lend itself perfectly to the outdoor environment to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia in a little more than a month.
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"Especially with Philadelphia, it always feels like a playoff atmosphere, a little more intense," Prust said. "Ranger-Flyer games are always amped up. Sometimes you go into their building and it's a hostile environment. Our Ranger fans were great. It was a great way to start off the rivalry."
The Flyers were without Chris Pronger, Jaromir Jagr and James van Riemsdyk due to illness and injuries. None of the ailments are long-term, so they should be back in plenty of time for the Winter Classic. The teams will have their second of six meetings and last one before the Winter Classic back here on Dec. 23.
Lundqvist was just fine with the Flyers not being at full-strength Saturday.
"I'm not going to lie -- I was pretty happy to see Jagr and Pronger out," Lundqvist said. "They're a good team with a lot of good players. I think we played a really strong game."
On HBO's preview of "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic" that aired Friday night, both teams spoke openly about their dislike for each other. They backed up those words in a big way on Saturday afternoon in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 18,200.
Callahan and Flyers leading scorer and early-season Hart Trophy candidate Claude Giroux both tumbled to the ice after a hard collision in the neutral zone. When Rinaldo and Simmonds weren't scrapping with Prust, they were jawing with the Rangers' Sean Avery. The Flyers' Danny Briere cross-checked the Rangers' Michael Del Zotto in the mouth during a battle along the wall during the second period.
There was plenty of chippiness and chirping to be had after most whistles, too. Neither team said it had to do with the upcoming Winter Classic -- it was just another unpleasant meeting between two teams that share a mild hatred for each other.
"They're always usually pretty intense," Callahan said. "A lot of bodies were thrown, a couple fights in the first period. Maybe that was a little more than usual, but I think that's how you get yourself into a game after a back-to-back where you maybe you don't have the same energy as you would for a normal game. You have to give a hit or take a hit to get into it."
Lundqvist stopped Scott Hartnell on a breakaway during the game's opening minutes. The far busier Sergei Bobrovsky made several excellent saves to keep the Flyers within striking distance as the Rangers held an 11-2 shots advantage early in the first period. It was a fast-paced game where the speed and talent was on equal display with the bruising and brawling.
Richards' goal at 54 seconds of the second period was a one-timer from the right circle. He was teed up by Girardi, who picked up his eighth assist and 11th point of the season. Bobrovsky, who played well and made 30 saves in his second straight start, was clearly fooled by the shot's speed and wasn't helped by the mass of humanity at the top of his crease.
It was a quick response after a goal was waived off seconds earlier because Callahan swept it into the net with his glove before Richards could tap it home.
"I saw it laying there. I thought I was going to poke it in," Richards said of the goal taken away by video review. "It was good to go right back down and get one. The first goal for us for some reason has been huge this year."
The Rangers improved to 10-1-0 when they get the first goal and 12-5-3 overall. The win moved them to within two points of the fifth-place Flyers, but the Rangers are the top team in the Eastern Conference based on points percentage with 27 points in 20 games. Only the San Jose Sharks with 27 points in 19 games have a better points percentage in the NHL entering Saturday's night games.
The Flyers won the physical battle, out-hitting the Rangers 34-22, but they never mustered a sustained attack. Playing without three of their stars and for the fourth time in six days didn't help, but coach Peter Laviolette wouldn't use it as an excuse.
"It seemed that the pop that we need to play the game, it was not where it needed to be," Laviolette said. "If we had one man on the puck, we needed a second or third. They blocked a lot of shots (21) and we were a little slow getting them off and a little slow finding the lanes. When we did get shots, Lundqvist had no problem seeing them."
"It was disappointing in a sense that we didn't spend any time in their defensive zone," said Briere, who had just 2 shots and injured teammate Andreas Nodl when the two collided during the second period. "It felt like we were one-and-done all night long, lots of shots from the outside. We never got rebounds, loose pucks. All the forwards were responsible for that."
Prust brought the pop and the shots right off the bat for the Rangers, and it made all the difference in this Winter Classic preview.
"It was amped up to another level with the crowd, especially the way it started with how Prusty did," Richards said. "It was great. He got us going. We played a good solid first period, got the lead and everybody did a good job and we got the win."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
Michael Del Zotto
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Michael Del Zotto