The light at the end of the tunnel is finally visible.
The momentum train started a year ago and steadily built up steam until the “Road to the Winter Classic” reached its’ fever pitch.
On December 2, 2017, the Blueshirts held a practice at Lasker Rink in Central Park for the first time in franchise history.
A couple thousand fans witnessed that skate and the energy from the crowd was matched by the players. After practice was over, Captain Ryan McDonagh said: “The Winter Classic is a month away but it comes up on you quickly.”
It sure did.
Since that practice, the NHL — in conjunction with the Rangers, Sabres and City of New York — held several events to build up the anticipation for what NHL Hall of Famer, and former Sabre and Ranger, Pat LaFontaine called, “the biggest event of the NHL calendar — at least during the regular season. Think of the Super Bowl, but then remember that this is hockey.”
LaFontaine continued: “The whole world gets to come together and celebrate the past while also looking towards the future. The mystique and excitement surrounding the Winter Classic is palpable. And it’s more than just a game. It’s a whole legacy.”
That legacy includes refurbishing a youth center in the South Bronx and doing community work throughout the city.
As the Winter Classic drew closer the excitement surrounding the event grew exponentially.
If you don’t want to take my word that’s fine.
Instead you can take the word of 1994 Stanley Cup champion goaltender Mike Richter, whose number 35 hangs in the rafters at Madison Square Garden.
“The NHL has fed off the passion from its players and has created this whole event where the energy and feeling is like that of your childhood. It brings the players and the game of hockey back to their roots.”
Richter went on to say: “And having the game in New York is a masterstroke. You want to celebrate New year’s Eve in Times Square and then hours later you’re still in this magical city preparing to play a hockey game under the elements in front of three times as many fans as normal.”
Well, now the game is here and the teams are ready and raring to go.
DEEP ROOTED CONNECTIONS
Rangers’ Assistant Coach Lindy Ruff spent time as the Sabres Head Coach for parts of 15-years (1997-2013). He holds several franchise head coaching records, including: games coached (1,165) and wins (571). Ruff also played 10 seasons with the Sabres (1979-1989).
Blueshirts’ Associate Coach Scott Arniel played four seasons for Buffalo (1986-1990). Arniel also served as an Assistant Coach with the Sabres for three years (2002-2006).
Jim Schoenfeld (Rangers’ Senior Vice President, Assistant General manager) played 11 campaigns with the Sabres (1972-1982; 1984-85). He is a member of the Sabres Hall of Fame and Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
Chris Drury (Blueshirts’ Assistant General Manager & General Manager, Hartford Wolf Pack) played three seasons for the Sabres (2003-2007) and was the Sabres’ captain for all three campaigns. He also served as Rangers’ Captain from 2008-2011.
Benoit Pouliot helped the 7th Avenue Skaters reach the Stanley Cup Final in his only season with the Blueshirts (2013-14).
Justin Falk also was a part of the Rangers’ team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013-14.
Chad Johnson made six appearances over parts of two seasons for the Rangers (2009-2011).
Mats Zuccarello: Arguably the best playmaker on the Blueshirts, Zuccarello is three assists away from 200 in his career.
PLAYER TO WATCH
SABRES: JACK EICHEL. The Sabres wonderkid has 11 points in his last six games and is one of the hottest players in the NHL. At his best, Eichel is a generational talent capable of changing the fortunes of an entire franchise. Unfortunately, the injury bug and a troubled organization have thus far prevented him from reaching those heights. Nevertheless, a dangerous star is set to show what he can do on the national stage.
RANGERS: HENRIK LUNDQVIST. In the Rangers’ previous three outdoor games, The King has started each contest; registering a 3-0-0 record with a save percentage of .933 and a goals-against-average of 2.00. He is the only goalie in NHL history to have three outdoor wins to his credit. With his superior play of late, look for Lundqvist to add to those impressive totals.
The Rangers held a full team practice at Citi Field to prepare for the Winter Classic and unless Head Coach Alain Vigneault changes his mind overnight, the lineup will remain unchanged from their game against Detroit on Friday night.
As for injury updates: Jesper Fast is still roughly two weeks away from returning and there is no update on Chris Kreider other than that he is in good spirits.
WHERE TO WATCH
The game will be broadcast on NBC at 1pm ET. For in-game coverage check out our Twitter account @NYRBlueBulletin.
This is the 10th Anniversary of the NHL’s first Winter Classic. And that game was a “classic” confrontation between the Sabres and Penguins.
This time around, it’s the Sabres and Blueshirts facing off under the elements, and it promises to be even better than the original.