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Are the Rangers Playing to the HBO Cameras?

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26: Zac Rinaldo #36 of the Philadelphia Flyers and Brandon Prust #8 of the New York Rangers fight just four seconds into the first period at Madison Square Garden on November 26, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) Zac Rinaldo and Brandon Prust.

The Rangers face off against the Stars tonight, but they've already played all the games that will be featured on tomorrow night's premiere of HBO's 24/7: Flyers–Rangers. As you may have noticed, we're pretty psyched for this show. But here's something worth considering on the eve of the first episode: Exactly how much, if at all, are the Rangers playing to the cameras?

Last year's edition, which followed the Penguins and Capitals in the weeks leading up to the Winter Classic at Heinz Field, was must-see television for those in the hockey world. (Rangers captain Ryan Callahan told the Times that "there isn't a guy in the league who didn’t watch the show last year.") And that's the thing: The players on both the Rangers and Flyers know that the eyes of the hockey world are on them, and know what made for good TV last time around, be it hotel pranks or a morning-time quest for Häagen-Dazs. This phenomenon isn't unique to 24/7. As Katie Baker put it over at Grantland earlier this month: "In most reality series, the first season has an innocent and experimental quality, while subsequent seasons become far more self-conscious and meta."

On the terrific Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast on Friday, Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski mentioned that he has a sneaking suspicion that the Rangers have indeed been playing to the cameras. Friday, of course, was the day after Artem Anisimov's gun-firing goal celebration, and like Wyshynski, we suspect it's no coincidence Anisimov chose this month to break out a celebration he says a teammate of his in Russia used to do all the time. We believe Anisimov when he says he didn't mean to show up the Lightning — his real mistake wasn't that he pretended to fire a gun, but that he pointed his stick directly at the opponent — but the Rangers, Anisimov included, are surely aware that their personalities are on display this month. Said Anisimov: "I went into this trying to be myself. I did something wrong, and we have moved on. People want to see what we really are." That last line is especially curious, since by all accounts, Anisimov is hardly the type of player you'd expect to react that way after a goal. Which raises the question: When the show premieres tomorrow night, will we truly be seeing who the Rangers really are, or will we be seeing the version of themselves they want us to see on HBO, for one reason or another?

The Anisimov celebration, of course, was just one incident. There's also the question — raised on that same podcast — of whether certain developments in the Rangers–Flyers rivalry are, if not made-for-TV, then at least being embellished for the sake of pay cable. And we think that by and large, any bad blood between these teams is legit. It's not for historical reasons: Dave Schultz never did anything to Brandon Prust. But the rivalry between these teams has become increasingly fierce over the past couple of seasons, in part because of some of the characters involved, and in part because of the frequency with which they face each other, in hostile buildings, no less. (Remember the time former Flyer Daniel Carcillo and Marian Gaborik dropped the gloves in Philadelphia a couple years back?) Factor in that the Flyers eliminated the Rangers from playoff contention on the final day of the season a couple years back, and we'd hardly blame anyone on the Rangers for disliking this particular Philadelphia team. That both teams are now among the Eastern Conference's best only raises the stakes.

Which isn't to say that 24/7 hasn't already been responsible for at least one storyline: Shelley calling Dubinsky a "weasel" on HBO's preview of the show last month, and Dubinsky responding by calling Shelley a "terrible player." Even if those are sincere words — and we have no doubt that they are — all of that was said with an awareness that there's a TV show being produced here. But the incident between Avery and Wayne Simmonds in the preseason? That hardly seems like it was done for the sake of future HBO viewers. And though the Winter Classic was on everyone's mind when the teams faced off for the first time in the regular season this year — literally: the teams took the ice wearing officially licensed ski caps — there's enough bad blood between these teams that the fight that immediately followed the opening face-off didn't seem out of place.

And so perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle: It's probably inevitable that the teams play to the cameras, at least a little bit. Do both teams understand that the show will likely play up the rivalry between New York and Philadelphia —  one that not only dates back decades in the NHL, but extends to other sports as well? Of course they do. But we think the Rangers and Flyers are willing actors here. These teams have enough of a history that they shouldn't need much encouragement to produce some entertaining television. (And don't forget: Though the rivalry between the teams will get plenty of airtime, so will moments that focus just on one team or the other.) Will what we see tomorrow be 100 percent authentic? Probably not. But if it's reasonably close, 24/7 should once again be appointment viewing.

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Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images