By Sean Hartnett
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Dirty hits, ungentlemanly conduct, fights on the ice and through the media, heroes and villains… all are typical of the rivalry between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. There has been genuine animosity between the two proud NHL franchises since 1967 when the Flyers entered the league but the rivalry may have reached its highest boiling point in 2011.
If Monday's preseason encounter was anything to judge by, Flyers-Rangers match-ups will be some of the most closely followed games on the NHL calendar. I'm not just talking about the anticipation of hockey fans but also the league's new head of discipline Brendan Shanahan. If these two Atlantic Division foes can't even manage to 'make nice' in a preseason game, imagine what sparks will fly when the Flyers visit Madison Square Garden in their first regular season meeting on November 26th. There's a strong possibility that Shanahan will be busy handing out suspensions after every Rangers-Flyers meeting.
A particularly ugly incident happened on Monday when the Flyers' enforcer Tom Sestito boarded the Rangers' Andre Deveaux blatantly from behind. A massive brawl erupted that resulted in Sestito being given a game misconduct. Sean Avery was also caught on the Flyers' broadcast saying, "I want to (expletive) kill Giroux." The Flyer that Avery was referring to was Claude Giroux and Avery threatened to go after a skill player in Giroux in response to Philadelphia's dirty tactics.
Always a firebrand, Avery later accused Flyer right-winger Wayne Simmonds of making a homophonic slur during the first period of the preseason clash. Whether Simmonds said something of that nature or not, only Avery, the referee present, Simmonds and the players near him on the bench know the actual truth. There wasn't any fine or suspension handed down by the league on Simmonds and NHL VP of Hockey Operations made the following statement:
"None of the on-ice officials close to the altercation in question heard any inappropriate slurs uttered by either of the primary antagonists."
John Tortorella had his player's back when interviewed post-game. "I didn't hear it. I don't think Sean Avery is lying. I'll let the league handle it. I did not hear it, but I'm sure Sean Avery isn't going to lie about it," he commented.
Avery, no stranger to controversy is set to take center stage in the rivalry and HBO's 24/7 coverage. The NHL made a huge effort to force down everyone's throats how much the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals hated each other but really it is the Flyers-Rangers feud that has the most bite. The rivalry isn't confined to the ice as Rangers' President and General Manager Glen Sather made a bold declaration at Citizens Bank Park during the 2012 Winter Classic unveiling ceremonies. With Flyers' chairman Ed Snider and their newly-appointed captain Chris Pronger present, Sather guaranteed that the Stanley Cup would be coming back to Madison Square Garden. "At the end of the year, we are going to be carrying the Cup, just like the Yankees will have the World Championship as well," he proclaimed.
It's certainly going to be an intriguing battle to see which franchise finishes higher in the Atlantic and all the incidents that unfold along the way. One storyline overshadowed by the Avery-Simmonds affair was the play of Jaromir Jagr against his former club. The ex-Ranger captain scored two goals and added an assist in front of his new fans in Philadelphia in Monday's exhibition. It will be interesting what kind of reaction he gets from Ranger fans when he returns to MSG in November wearing the orange and black.
This rivalry really has something for everyone. Besides the animosity and fighting, there are some wonderfully skilled stars on either side. The Flyers are boosted by the addition of a top-tier goalie that they've lacked for more than a decade in Ilya Bryzgalov as well as the aforementioned Simmonds and Jagr. Philadelphia was also able to acquire a number of young talents in exchange for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
The Rangers landed the biggest fish in the free agent market in Brad Richards and are pinning hope that he and their captain Ryan Callahan can guide their group of youth stars that include Tim Erixon and Ryan Bourque to stardom. If the Blueshirts can increase their goal output, it's very possible they can enjoy a successful season with all-world net-minder Henrik Lundqvist backing them.
I know I'm not the only one circling November 26th on my calendar. It's going to be an exciting ride…
Rangers fans – Has your rivalry with the Flyers' reached new levels and who has the edge on winning the Atlantic? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.
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