Welcome to 2018!
A brutally cold New Year’s Day in New York City — temperature at puck drop was a frigid 20.5 degrees Fahrenheit — didn’t stop fans from packing Citi Field to full capacity.
While Buffalo technically received the home team designation, it was a pro-Rangers crowd and the pregame pomp-and-circumstance showcased the love the city has for its’ oldest hockey team. And the celebration after the Blueshirts won in overtime 3-2 was as memorable as it gets.
Right off the bat, the Blueshirts came out flying. But there was an element of surprise in their fast start; the presence of Jesper Fast.
Jesper was injured on December 21st against the Devils and was scheduled to miss two-to-three weeks. Instead he came back after just 10 days, to the genuine surprise of everybody involved with the team.
Head Coach Alain Vigneault later stated, “if you would have asked me yesterday if Jesper would play in this game my answer would have been no. But he woke up this morning feeling better, was looked at by the doctors and after warmups told me he was good to go. So we put him in.”
That decision proved vital as the Rangers’ fourth-line set the tone of the game early. And their hard work paid off just 4:09 into the game. A terrific pass from Fast to a wide-open Paul Carey, who was alone in front of the net, resulted in the game’s first goal.
The crowd showed its’ appreciation by singing the Rangers’ goal song; quite a sight to behold from the sold out crowd of 41,821. And made even more impressive when you remember that Buffalo was the home team.
If Carey’s goal raised the proverbial roof of Citi Field, then the Blueshirts’ next goal blew the roof off the ballpark.
Four minutes and change after Carey scored, Kevin Hayes pulled off a no-look, backhand spin-o-rama from below the Sabres’ goal line.
The puck banked off goalie Robin Lehner and onto the blade of Michael Grabner. Grabner promptly deposited the frozen disc in the open net for the 2-0 Rangers’ lead.
At that point, the pro-Blueshirts crowd was thinking blowout.
But the Sabres weren’t willing to play the roles of victims.
After Grabner’s goal, the 7th Avenue Skaters held a 14-4 shots advantage; dominating play.
Then, just as the wind changed, so did the fortunes of the Sabres.
The Blueshirts committed three penalties in the duration of the period; ceding momentum.
Buffalo then capitalized 56 seconds into the second period thanks to a carryover power-play and an in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time Sam Reinhart.
Reinhart banged home the loose puck and the score was 2-1.
Then Buffalo found its’ legs and kicked it up a notch.
Buffalo carried its’ momentum into the third period and with just 27 seconds gone by, Rasmus Ristolainen tied the game on a shot that zoomed past Henrik Lundqvist like a missile.
From there the game got interesting.
Both teams played a prolonged sequence of North-South hockey but neither scored.
Finally the game went into overtime and an old adage came back to bite the Sabres.
Jack Eichel came within an inch of winning the game but Ryan McDonagh got his stick on the puck at the last possible moment and in the following play, Jacob Josefson committed a tripping penalty.
After a brief halt in play so the teams could switch sides — an NHL rule for outdoor games in overtime — J.T. Miller found himself in perfect position to win the game.
The Rangers play went from Mats Zuccarello to Kevin Shattenkirk and then the puck found itself on Miller’s stick. And Miller shot it into the net for the dramatic victory.
BLUESHIRT BULLET POINTS
UNDER THE ELEMENTS: This game marked the fourth time in Blueshirts’ history that the team played a regular season NHL game outdoors. They are 4-0-0 in these special games. No other NHL team has won four outdoor games and no other NHL team is perfect in outdoor games (minimum of three games played).
PAPA JOHN’S: For the 23rd time in 33 games the Rangers tallied three or more goals. Bring on the celebratory pizza.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The 7th Avenue Skaters were four-for-five on the penalty-kill and one-for-three on the power-play. That power-play goal won the game in overtime, courtesy of J.T. Miller.
EXCLUSIVE COMPANY: Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal have played in all four of the Blueshirts’ outdoor games. And Lundqvist is the NHL leader in outdoor wins for a goalie with four.
CLOSING TIME: Since the start of this season, the Rangers are 14-0-0 when taking a lead into the third period. That gives them a better percentage of successfully closing out games than MLB Hall-of-Fame Closer Mariano Rivera.
The Rangers face Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks Wednesday (Jan. 3) at MSG. Game time: 8 p.m. ET. Broadcast: NBCSN.
The NHL doesn’t call these games “Classic” for nothing.
Aside from the spattering of Buffalo fans and the Sabres team, everybody went home happy.
After the game Henrik Lundqvist cheerfully said:
“Every outdoor game is special and means something to you. I could easily play one every year and never get tired of it.”