Print and Go Back ESPN.com: New York Hockey [Print without images]

Sunday, January 1, 2012
Blueshirts take breather as Classic looms

By Katie Strang


Brian Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Rangers, who posed for pictures Sunday, battle the Flyers on Monday at Citizens Bank Park.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Rangers had a chance to soak in the atmosphere of the Winter Classic festivities, skating with family members and posing for pictures following the team’s practice session on Sunday.

It was a rare moment for the Blueshirts to take a step back and appreciate what all the hype and hysteria leading up to the league’s annual outdoor game is about.

After a whirlwind start to a season rife with distraction, including a grueling European tour and constant exposure from the embedded HBO camera crews, the Rangers are ready for the reward and poised to take care of business.

“We have had a number of distractions right from the get-go of camp, and the guys have handled it well,” coach John Tortorella said during his post-practice news conference. “So their focus, there won't be any problem with that at all as far as tomorrow.”

Focus hasn’t been an issue for the stubborn and single-minded Rangers, who are 7-3-0 in their past 10 games and in first place in the Eastern Conference.

In fact, resilience has been the team’s calling card during its ascent in the standings.

“This staff is really good at keeping us dialed in on the objectives. Nothing really slides in our game so it’s something that has been addressed every day, and something we pay attention to,” said forward Mike Rupp, who played in last year’s Winter Classic with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Why has this team done well at weathering the obstacles and minimizing distractions?

“Maybe because everything has been a distraction that everything just feels normal,” assistant captain Brad Richards said.

Richards said the team was made well aware of the challenges it would face this season long before he inked his nine-year, $60 million contract as a free agent in July.

The rigors of the 2011-12 season was a topic of discussion with core players before the team broke last offseason. A letter was then sent out this summer as a reminder and the issue was broached once again during training camp.

“We talked about, ‘We’re not going to let it bother us.’ No excuses,” Richards said.

And the fact the team has excelled throughout the first 36 games certainly helps.

“Winning helps everything, and that's another example,” Richards said. “If you lose, maybe you start using that as a crutch. We haven’t done that because we’ve been able to string a lot of wins together.”

The venue and the atmosphere will be different Monday, but that plan remains the same.

“Today is the day to enjoy and have the family in here and this and that,” Rupp said Sunday. “But tomorrow is another hockey game and [we can’t] let our emotions get in the way of our two points.”