NEW YORK – Hockey players are creatures of habit. They need to be. When you’re practicing and playing games from mid-September until at least April it’s easy to settle into daily routines as that becomes your normal life.
But certain points of the season can drag and along the journey of an 82-game schedule comes points of boredom. Rink, bus, game, hotel, plane and repeat. Like anything, sometimes a season needs a jolt of electricity to bring some excitement to it.
Enter the Winter Classic.
The Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers have known this date was coming since the spring. It’s a nationally televised game on a big stage in New York over New Year’s. The all-access cameras have been following them around for a few weeks now and with the holidays just passing, it’s been a great time to spend with family.
On Sunday, both teams got to skate on the ice at Citi Field — first with their teammates during practice and then for an hour afterward with friends and family.
“We’ve been talking about this for the past few weeks and past few months. Families are in now so it’s almost like a little family trip,” said Sabres forward Jordan Nolan. “We were together [Saturday], we had a team meal. [Sunday night] there’s a team meal and guys are spending New Year’s together, guys are getting the families together. When you do an event like this it definitely brings a team a little bit closer. It’s a little bit special experience for everyone during the season, so it’s definitely needed for an 82-game schedule.”
“It’s a lot different,” added Evander Kane. “You kind of forget about the rest of the year.”
While there’s plenty of potential distractions for both teams leading up to the New Year’s Day game, they’re not all necessarily negative.
“You’re changing the normal routine here. I think as an organization, as coaches, that’s one thing that we try and do in an 82-game schedule at any given point is try to change a little bit, even though players are creatures of habit,” said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. “With this [Monday], everybody’s got tons of people that are going to watch, that are going to be here, they’re going to want to be at their best. Both teams are going to work real hard and it’s going to be a fine event.”
Both Rangers and Sabres players said on Sunday that while there’s plenty of fun to be had during an outdoor game experience, game day is a different story. They’ll wake up Monday morning and prepare like normal. All the excitement surrounding such an event goes away and it’s a matter of focusing on the two points at hand — points that mean different things to both teams at this point in the season.
For the Rangers, it’s two points toward clinching another playoff berth. For the Sabres, it’s two points that could get them moving in the right direction — a direction they’re feeling they’ve finally started to move toward.
“We’ve got to try and find positives and we have been playing well of late,” Kane said. “A game like this, a marquis game of the year, it’s something that we’re all looking forward to and now that it’s finally here we want to put ourselves in a position to win this game and get off on the right foot for the new year.”
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
• Rangers, Sabres prepared for cold, windy Winter Classic conditions
• Kevin Shattenkirk looking to be more than ‘work in progress’ with Rangers
• Old friends Lehner, Lundqvist ready to face off at Winter Classic
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.