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Preliminaries past, Rangers ready for Winter Classic

by Alain Poupart /
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Henrik Lundqvist started smiling before the question was even finished.

Sitting in the New York Rangers dressing room after their 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers Friday night, all the goaltender needed to hear were the words "Winter Classic" to know what was coming.

There are no more preliminaries for the Rangers. The 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Philadelphia Flyers at Citizens Bank Park on Monday afternoon is next on the schedule.

"It's been such a buildup," Lundqvist said. "In August you start to talk about it, and now we're finally there. It's so hard to believe almost. I think everybody is looking forward to going there and get a skate in the day before and settle in and get a feel for it, and then go out and enjoy the game.


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"It's a regular game, but it's going to be a little different, that's for sure. I don't really know what to expect here, I'm just going to go out and try to play my game and have fun."

Coach John Tortorella said before Friday's game against the Panthers that his players had done a good job on focusing on the next game on the schedule and not looking ahead, and the team's recent surge certainly backs up that claim.

The victory over Florida was the Rangers' sixth in their last seventh games, the only blemish coming Wednesday night with a 4-1 loss at Washington.

"This team has matured well over the last few years and we're very prepared with the staff they've got here to handle it," center Brad Richards said. "A lot of distractions this year: Europe, HBO and new building, renovations, all that stuff. It's been talked about the odd time, but everybody keeps plugging away and it's just business as usual."

That's not easy considering HBO cameras have been following the Rangers' every move for a few weeks now and the Winter Classic is the most talked-about regular-season game of the year.

Beyond the hype and the hoopla, it's a game of great significance for the Atlantic Division-leading Rangers because they're playing a Flyers team that's only two points behind them in the standings.

"We're really looking forward to it," Tortorella said. "It's an honor to play in it. It's great for the League, so I'm glad it's here. Guys have handled themselves very well. They've enjoyed themselves all through this stuff here with HBO and everything leading up to it. It's been a great experience for them.

"But I'm not interested in the hoopla of this game. That's Philadelphia, that's a huge two points for us. There's so much hype for this regular season, we need to just worry about playing our game and trying to find a way to win."

After the game is played Monday, the Rangers and Flyers will get back to the business of going through their 2011-12 schedule, minus the anticipation of the Winter Classic, minus the HBO cameras and minus all the extra attention.

As much as they're anticipating Monday's game, Rangers players also looking forward to returning to a more normal NHL season.

"It's good to realize that it's our next game," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "We're excited about it. At the same time, it's going to be good to play it and move on and continue the rest of the season."

Added Lundqvist: "There's been so much focus on it. It's going to be fun, but after that it's going to be easier for us to just move on and look ahead what's coming here, a lot of hockey and hopefully some really exciting months ahead of us."
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