NEW YORK – Jordan Nolan of the Buffalo Sabres wasn’t sure how effective his eye black would be should it be sunny during Monday’s Winter Classic against the New York Rangers at Citi Field. One thing he was sure about, though, was how cool he thought it looked.
Eye black. Lotion. Heated benches. Toques. Layers upon layers of clothing. These are some of the tools available to players when they take part in these outdoor games. The forecast for Queens, New York on New Year’s Day calls for a high around 16 degrees with a windchill making it feel like 1 degree.
As the game goes along, the players will be able to adjust to the elements, but early on, things such as sun, snowflakes and wind, which are expected to be around 16 mph, could affect play.
“All those elements are going to come into play,” said Sabres head coach Phil Housley. “Hopefully the wind will be at our back for three periods. I know that’s not going to be the case but we’re going to put a good game plan together just using other coaches’ experience here, being in this game and what it’s all about. We’ll be ready to go.”
Both teams got to experience the elements and adjust to their surroundings on Sunday during practice day at Citi Field. The cold was obvious, but wind was a noticeable factor, one that will play a role when puck drops on Monday afternoon.
“It’s in play,” said Sabres forward Kyle Okposo. “It depends which way you’re going. If it’s a crosswind it kind of blows your stick a little bit [and] makes you miss a pass by that much. [It’s] definitely a little bit of a factor but it’s the same thing for both teams.”
The first Stadium Series game at Yankee Stadium in 2014 between the Rangers and New Jersey Devils was delayed due to a sun glare. Even with eye black, glare combined with the unique sightlines a hockey rink in the middle of a baseball stadium brings can provide plenty of tough moments for both goaltenders and skaters. Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner called the sun “a little challenging,” while Ryan O'Reilly added that a few times he had difficult seeing while carrying the puck up ice.
Outdoor games are never a typical hockey experience, which is why most teams try to keep their game plan simple: get the puck in deep, get it out quickly, capitalize on mistakes. “The goals that happen are usually bang-bang plays,” said Sabres forward Kyle Okposo, who played in the 2014 Stadium Series at Yankee Stadium.
Between the Sabres and Rangers, 22 players have participated in at least one NHL outdoor game. There will be plenty of newbies experiencing the pomp and circumstance that Monday afternoon will bring and then you’ll have someone like Benoit Pouliot, who will be suiting up to play outside for the fifth time in his career.
Another outdoor game vet is Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqivst, who will be playing in his fourth. He’s won all three that he’s started and by this point he’s pretty well-educated on how to handle whatever conditions Mother Nature throws at him.
“It’s about layering up and understanding what you need to be wearing,” Lundqvist said. “The ice was great, really fast. I really enjoyed practice. It got a little cold in the end during the family skate. Overall, it felt to be out there. A little windy, but we’ll see [Monday]. I think it’s going to be a great hockey game.”
More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
• Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
• Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)
• Sabres hoping to use Winter Classic to jump-start positive second half