The season before the first Winter Classic, the Sabres had a league-best 53 wins, paced by the offensive prowess of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, and they advanced to the conference finals for a second consecutive year. They have not won a playoff series since and have not reached the postseason since 2011.
Despite gaining high draft picks that yielded the heralded forwards Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, the Sabres are struggling even more under their first-year coach Phil Housley. He is the team’s fifth coach in six seasons.
Credit Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
But when it came to planning the Winter Classic’s 10th anniversary, those troubles did not matter to the N.H.L. or NBC Sports.
“The Sabres deserve this,” said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports. “They were the ones that took the risk. The Sabres were the club that stepped up and turned it into a must-see TV moment. I think it changed the way hockey was viewed.”
Jason Pominville, now an elder statesman with the Sabres at 35, recalled being awed participating in the first Winter Classic. He expressed confidence that the Sabres would bring a spirited effort to the national audience despite their dismal record.
“It’s easy to get motivated for these type of games,” said Pominville, a former Sabres captain. “You have to put aside the fact we’re not playing the way we would want to, and just go out there and enjoy it.”
The Sabres pinned their hopes on Eichel, who came out of the once-in-a-generation draft class in 2015 that included Connor McDavid, the league’s reigning most valuable player. Eichel has been among the team’s offensive leaders in his first three seasons, but he has not had the impact in the standings that McDavid has had in Edmonton.
Pominville said he understood the microscope Eichel was under and hoped national attention could inspire his young teammate. Eichel, 21, recently signed a 10-year, $80 million contract extension that begins next season.
“He deserves to be there on the big stage.” Pominville said of Eichel, who has 15 goals this season. “He’s a guy who handles it well. He’s an elite player.”
Because of tax exemption rules in New York, the Sabres will be the home team against the Rangers at Citi Field, the Mets’ stadium. The Rangers, one of the league’s most popular teams, will be playing in their second Winter Classic and their fourth outdoor game over all.
The Rangers edged the Flyers, 3-2, at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia in the 2012 Winter Classic, and they played two games at Yankee Stadium in January 2014 as part of that season’s Stadium Series.
The forecast is among the coldest for any outdoor game played in the United States. The average temperature through 23 previous outdoor games is 35.5 degrees, but Monday’s forecast for New York is a temperature around 20 degrees.
It appears Buffalo’s weather will come with the Sabres, and that makes Jon Miller happy.
Miller, the president for programming at NBC Sports, recalled the amazement he felt driving to the stadium on the morning of Jan. 1, 2008, and seeing tailgating fans everywhere. It was a football party before a hockey game.
“Seeing the parking lot packed with people grilling, throwing footballs and playing street hockey, it reminded me of the parking lot before an A.F.C. championship game in Buffalo,” Miller said. “It has proven to be a special event.”
For the veteran Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, the game is a treat amid the grind of the season.
“The atmosphere, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “It brings you back to being a kid and playing the game in its purest form. That’s always a lot of fun.”
Pominville, who also played in an outdoor game in Minnesota against Chicago in 2016, said that he was grateful for the chance to participate in another Winter Classic and that he had spoken to teammates about the importance of embracing the experience and sharing it with family.
“My kids — who are 8 and 6 — weren’t even born when I played my first one,” he said. “So this game for me will mean even more.”
He added: “Every year, even when I’m not playing, I enjoy watching it just being a fan. It’s a day to celebrate hockey.”