Henrik Lundqvist hopes to backstop the Rangers to another outdoor victory.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The first Winter Classic took place 10 years ago, when the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in a snow-globe scenario that made the NHL the lead story on every sports highlight show on New Year’s Day in 2008.

The event has largely been a success for the league, although it has been tough to match the beauty and drama of that first game, a 2-1 shootout victory for the Penguins, with Sidney Crosby shoveling the winning shot past Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller.

The Sabres return to the Winter Classic for the first time since then when they meet the New York Rangers Monday at 1 p.m. ET at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets. Both teams will wear unique uniforms, and NBC will the game.

The Rangers have rebounded nicely after a sluggish start to the season, and they find themselves in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference with a 20-13-5 record. They are inside the NHL’s playoff structure with 45 points, and they are within five points of the first-place New Jersey Devils.

The Sabres were expected to do well in Jack Eichel’s third season with the team, and it appeared they might be ready to make a move toward the playoffs in the Atlantic Division. Instead, the Sabres have endured a nightmarish season that has them in last place in the Eastern Conference with a 10-20-8 record.

Any thought of the playoffs seems out of the question.

Still, a victory over the Rangers and their star goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, could give the Sabres a jolt that turns their season around.

The Sabres are struggling to score goals and keep them out of their own net. Through Friday night’s games, they have scored 84 goals, which is the fewest in the league. They have allowed 126, and the New York Islanders and Arizona Coyotes are the only teams that have allowed more. 

Eichel leads the Sabres in scoring with 15 goals and 20 assists in 38 games, while left wing Evander Kane is close behind with 15 goals and 19 assists.

Ryan O’Reilly has 24 points and ex-New York Islander Kyle Okposo has 17 points. 

The Sabres have been expecting more production from those players, and their depth players have not contributed enough.

The Rangers are paced by Mats Zuccarello, who has eight goals and 21 assists. Center J.T. Miller and left wing Pavel Buchnevich both have 25 points. High-scoring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk has 22 points in his first season with the Blueshirts, and so too does speedy left wing Chris Kreider.

However, Kreider is out because of a blood clot that was recently discovered in his right arm. That’s a tough blow for head coach Alain Vigneault because Kreider’s explosiveness gives him a chance to connect on a sudden scoring chance at any point.

The Rangers should have a huge advantage in goal, with Lundqvist near the top of his game. He has a 17-9-4 record, a 2.58 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.

Robin Lehner, the Sabres’ top goaltender, is 9-14-5 with a 2.74 GAA and a .915 save percentage. 

Lundqvist has a 3-0-0 record in outdoor games, and his presence gives the Rangers plenty of confidence. He was 2-4-2 at the start of the season but has turned it around since then.

“He’s been playing really well since about [the end October],” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said, per Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the “Just playing very confident. He’s competing really hard, and he looks like he’s having some fun doing it. We’ve obviously reaped the rewards of that.”

The Rangers are the better team, and if the Sabres go behind early, it doesn’t appear they have the talent and depth to get the best of Lundqvist in the outdoor game.


Tickets to the Winter Classic are available through StubHub.

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