Friday night's contest between the Rangers and Flyers is going to be a big one and it has nothing to do with the fact that the Winter Classic is just around the corner.
The Rangers guaranteed that they have a chance to be in first place in the Atlantic by continuing their strong play in Thursday night's 4-2 win over the Islanders. They are getting contributions from every spot on their roster -- Hello, Stu Bickel! -- despite injuries leaving them shorthanded on the blue line and continue to get the kind of season from Marian Gaborik that everyone missed last season.
Gaborik is now tied for the NHL lead with 20 goals after scoring against the Isles on Thursday and he's sure to be a target for the Flyers at the Garden on Friday. The nice thing for the Rangers right now, and the biggest difference from the last two years, is that they aren't totally reliant on Gaborik to put the puck in the net.
That's just one measuring stick of how far the Rangers have come this season. Michael Del Zotto's transformation to lead defenseman, Brad Richards' arrival and the team's ability to win on nights when everything doesn't go their way are all other signs that this Rangers team is worthy of both first place and the spotlight HBO and the league are providing them.
Playing the Flyers will give them a chance to provide further proof that there's fire behind all the smoke we've seen from the team to this point in the season. It's starting to feel like a special season at the Garden, but beating the Flyers is going to be a crucial part of seeing that through to fruition.
Part of that is the Winter Classic and the focus that HBO is putting on one game in a season that rarely makes one game matter all that much, but the fact that the fate of the division hangs in the balance means that this would be a huge game without any additional window dressing. Top-level talent will be all over the ice on Friday, especially with Claude Giroux's return from concussion for the Flyers, and there will likely be some seeds of drama planted for the Jan. 2 rematch at Citizens Bank Park.
The Rangers couldn't really ask for anything more at this point in the season. They are playing well and they are being forced to raise their game thanks to the spotlight of "24/7" and the presence of the Flyers just above them in the standings.
It's exactly where they want to be and the next 10 days will tell us a lot about their ability to stay there.