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Rangers take Classic warmup with 4-2 win over Flyers

by Dave Lozo
NEW YORK -- The Rangers' 4-2 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden on Friday vaulted them into first place in the Atlantic Division as the NHL takes a two-day break for the Christmas holidays.

Any sense of satisfaction from that accomplishment, Henrik Lundqvist?

"Ask me in April, when it matters," Lundqvist said.

In the final meeting between the Rangers and Flyers before the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, the Rangers used 28 saves from Lundqvist and goals by Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan and Ruslan Fedotenko to move past the Flyers for tops in the division and the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference. It was the Rangers' fourth straight win and third and four days.

It was also the Rangers' second thorough win of the season against the Flyers. Lundqvist made 29 saves on Nov. 26 to pick up a shutout in a 2-0 victory. They have won four straight against their division rivals, who were without several key cogs -- defenseman Chris Pronger is out of the season with a concussion while forwards Danny Briere and Sean Couturier are day-to-day with a bruised hand and concussion, respectively.

Briere and Couturier could be back for the outdoor event at Citizens Bank Park on Jan. 2.

For now, the Rangers were happy to get to the holiday respite after a busy week against three division rivals -- the Islanders, Devils and Flyers. They improved to 4-0-1 in the second half of back-to-backs this season and are 25-8-3 in the second half of back-to-backs since 2009-10.

"It feels good to get a break here after this week. It was an incredible week for us," Lundqvist said. "I know I can enjoy Christmas now."

Friday's game matched the intensity of the first game. The teams combined for 59 hits, while Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle of the Rangers dropped the gloves with Marc-Andre Bourdon and Tom Sestito in two separate fights. Defenseman Anton Stralman, who entered the game with 11 hits in 9 games, delivered four against the Flyers, including a bone-crushing hip check to the Flyers' Matt Read.

Those are the type of things that come with playing a divisional rival, but they can be amplified exponentially with all the hype surrounding the Winter Classic and HBO cameras everywhere filming every word and hit for the "24/7" documentary.

Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said it was important to leave all that stuff behind and not get too excited.

"If there's one key, I think it's just a matter of playing good hockey and playing the way we have to play, and not getting too hyped up and over-amped," Callahan said. "It's easy to play these guys and get overly aggressive and take penalties. If we play our system, I think we have a good chance against any team."

For a better part of the first period, however, the Flyers looked to be having their way. The Rangers didn't get their first shot on goal until there was 5:35 left in the first period. From there, the ice slowly started to tilt toward the net of Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

The Rangers broke the scoreless tie at 10:18 of the second period when Stepan used a wonderful deflection of a point shot from defenseman Stu Bickel to make it 1-0. Bickel's shot from the right point was chest high and headed wide, but Stepan redirected past a surprised Bryzgalov. The goal was reviewed to see if Stepan played it with a high stick and allowed to stand.

Fedotenko scored a carbon copy of that goal 5:21 later to make it 2-0. Once again, it was Bickell taking a long shot, only this time it was Fedotenko tipping the shot down off the ice and up into the top of the net. It was originally ruled no goal, but video review showed the puck crossed the goal line and quickly bounced out of the net.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette cited that goal as the hardest to swallow.

"I think that second goal probably hurt, when you aren't having any luck offensively against a team and you aren't dropping the goals the way you want," Laviolette said. "I think we had a lot of good zone time. I liked the first period. I liked the way we played. The second period, I thought the first five minutes, I tried to grab them at the TV timeout just to bring them back in. They were just a little bit off it seemed."

Gaborik's League-leading 21st goal of the season at 1:48 of the third period made it 3-0 and proved to be the winner. A long pass from Stralman sent Gaborik on a breakaway. The red-hot sniper fired a quick shot that beat Bryzgalov to the stick side.

Following the goal, Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros wiped out and knocked Gaborik off his feet. Gaborik appeared to be in pain on the bench, holding his left shoulder. But coach John Tortorella said afterward that Gaborik was uninjured on the play.

Meszaros put the Flyers on the board with a power-play goal with 9:39 remaining to cut the lead to 3-1, but Callahan answered with a power-play goal of his own 3:43 later after another point shot -- this one from Dan Girardi -- gave Bryzgalov trouble. The ensuing rebound was shot home by Callahan to make it 4-1.

James van Riemsdyk made the final score a little more respectable by tallying with 2:10 remaining -- the third goal that needed to be reviewed in Toronto -- but it was once again the Rangers imposing their will against one of the League's best teams.

"It had that playoff-type atmosphere 30-something games into the season," Callahan said. "You don't see that too much. The crowd was into it, bodies were getting thrown around. We love playing these type of games."

The loss, according to Laviolette, will only make the Winter Classic that much more intense.

"I think it builds up for the Winter Classic," Laviolette said. "We're looking forward to that. We've got a few games we need to take care of before that. The Rangers are a good team. We've had a good year. It probably does add a little fuel."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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