New Years Day marks the 10th anniversary of the NHL Winter Classic. The opponents both hail from New York State, eager to start 2018 on the right skate.
The NHL Winter Classic is reminiscent of hockey’s inception. The cold air, the bundled layers, and good friends remind every NHL player of their beginning in the great sport. How the Classic differs, however, is its arena. Larger than life. See how the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres have fared on their journey to this stage.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are no stranger to the big time. Representing a city like New York, the spotlight is basically included in their contract. In fact, the Rangers have been in the NHL’s hot seat for several years. With their big win in the 2012 Winter Classic against the Philadelphia Flyers and two extremely close Stanley Cup runs, the Rangers expect themselves to perform like winners. Unfortunately, this season hasn’t displayed that same excellence.
Sitting in 13th place in the NHL, the Rangers are lucky to be standing after this season’s poor entrance. The Rangers off-season shocked many but the team looked promising, especially with the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk. With a home opener against last year’s worst NHL team, the Colorado Avalanche, the Rangers were poised for victory. They did not find it. The Rangers were embarrassed on home ice, losing 4-2. From there, the losses kept on coming.
In the month of October, the Rangers registered a meek four wins and a whopping nine losses. 2017 served the Rangers an opening record of 1-5-2, their worst since 1959-1960. Head coach Alain Vigneault‘s head was on the chopping block as the Rangers hosted the NHL’s newest and brightest team, the Vegas Golden Knights on Halloween. Surprisingly, the Rangers defeated Vegas 6-4 and completely turned around their season, just in time.
Glittering History and Reputation
As an original six team, the Rangers are ingrained in the league’s rich history. The New York Rangers name carries with it 91 years of tradition. Names such as Brad Park, Phil Esposito, Adam Graves and Jean Ratelle have called the Garden their home ice. Mark Messier famously guaranteed his team would win Game Six against the New Jersey Devils to boost themselves closer to their ultimate 1994 Stanley Cup win. The Great One, Wayne Gretzky also donned red, white and blue. The Rangers stand as proud as their namesake city and pack just as much of an attitude.
Where They Stand
Since November’s resurgence, the Rangers have been on an upward swing. They’ve had their share of loses but nothing quite like October. The most impressive qualities the team has shown have been their resilience while missing key players. Mika Zibanejad, Jesper Fast, and Ryan McDonagh have all been out for extended periods of time. Chris Kreider, a dynamic forward is the most recent player to be sidelined. Players like Paul Carey, David Desharnais, and Boo Nieves have all elevated their game to become regular roster pieces in the veteran’s absences.
However, the main key to the Rangers success is nothing new for the Blueshirts, Henrik Lundqvist. In his 13th NHL season, Lundqvist continues to exude excellence. His consistency in the crease gives the Rangers a chance to win every night. In the last two weeks alone, the netminder has broken his career high in “SOG over three games” three times. There’s no question that Hank continues to be the backbone of the Rangers franchise and the Winter Classic stage will show no difference.
The Sabres couldn’t have a more different reputation than the Rangers. A franchise floundering since their inception in 1970 has been desperately searching for a successful formula. Despite the addition of a young prodigy, Jack Eichel, the Sabres continue to struggle.
10-20-8. That’s why the Sabres sit 30th in the NHL standings. Only the Arizona Coyotes sit below, who are off to the worst start in their franchise history. Of the last ten seasons, the Sabres have only qualified for the playoffs twice, once in 2009-10 and again in 2010-11. Without a cup to hoist and a slim selection of wins over the years, players have become increasingly disappointed in their team’s failures. One of those increasingly vocal players is the one man who might make a difference, Eichel. In an article from SB Nation published after the Sabres disappointing 2016-17 season, Eichel vocalized his displeasure for his teammates work ethic. He even insinuated that the team is simply happy to be in the NHL and could care less about actually winning.
A Glimmer of Promise
Eichel, the young face of the Sabres franchise, came to the team after being selected second overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. There’s no question that Eichel was elected to the Sabres to turnaround their team, a task he’s individually attempting to master but he cannot do it alone. Eichel’s rookie year, he earned 56 points in 82 games. His second season, though marred by an early injury earned him 57 points in 61 games. His current record, 35 points in 38 games has him projected to best his career point total by nearly 20 points. However, Eichel’s leadership attitude needs to shift with the team, rather than against it if his presence is to in fact initiate a turn around for this Northern New York team.
No matter the final score on Monday afternoon, every player will march onto Citi Field achieving a childhood dream.
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