Objectively, the Winter Classic 2018 is already decided. This New Year’s Day, at Citi Field, the Buffalo Sabres will lose to the New York Rangers. That’s my prediction and in all likelihood, will be the reality. Argue what you want, say what you will but the hard fact of the matter is that the Buffalo Sabres can’t win a big game if they tried at this point.
The Buffalo Sabres
As of this moment, the Buffalo Sabres are sitting at the very bottom of the Atlantic Conference, Eastern Conference and the second to last of the entire league. Though with thirty-seven games played and a 9-20-8 record, the only team behind them is the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes have played forty games and their record is 9-26-5. Hardly something the Sabres want to even be remotely compared to. In recent weeks, they have picked up a little bit of steam but as it still stands, they are not a competitive hockey team. Now, none of this is to say that the Rangers are a dominating team in the league right now either. They are sitting dead in the middle of the Metropolitan Division. But they’re competitive, which is more than can be said for the opposition they are facing at Citi Field this Monday.
The only thing the Sabres have going for them right now is desperation. Nothing is going right for them at the moment. They only have two players on the whole team who have broken double digits in scoring. Almost no player on the team has a positive plus/minus rating. Evander Kane is their only minor threat and he has no one to support him on the ice. Watching them play is chaotic to put it kindly. When a team is throwing as many mismanaged bodies in front of the goal rather than running an offensive play, they don’t have a better option. They just want a goal at any cost. They are only doing one thing: they are sending a ton of bodies into the opposing net and hoping someone accidentally kicks a goal in.
The defense is paper thin. The top defensive pairing of Scandella and Ristolainen are averaging well over 20 minutes a game at this point. They are rotating defensemen rather than 3 full lines with Falk basically riding the bench in case of emergency. It’s a lot to put on five guys, but really two. No players are good enough to consistently play 20+ minutes a night and not suffer from fatigue, frustration, missteps, etc especially when losing as consistently as they are. Their goaltending is doing the best they can but it comes down to one simple rule: to win hockey games, you have to score. And Buffalo can barely score right now.
The New York Rangers
On the next bench is the Rangers. Despite their own struggles, they have more going for them than the destitute Sabres. From the net to the front lines, they have a working play system and a couple of stars that can keep them above water in most situations. Mats Zuccarello is not only a fan favorite but he’s playing about 20 minutes even a game at the moment and has the numbers to show for it. He’s shooting hard and shooting often, making solid plays which amount to assists for him and goals for his teammates. At this point in the season, he is clearly their offensive playmaker.
Their second line is also a scoring powerhouse. Michael Garbner is having an especially good season and both of his linemates have been scoring regularly recently as well. They have a solid, three pair set of defenders who are holding down the back. They have allowed a lot of shots so far but Ryan McDonagh is having a particularly good season, playing tough physical hockey and making key blocks. Luckily, they also have Lundqvist still in between the pipes. He’s been in the league a while, but no goalie I know can face over 1,000 shots in the first 40 games and allow less than 80 to go in. His save percentage is HUGE compared to what it should be under those conditions. However, they have a small weakness.
Other stars have remained surprisingly quiet this year. Rick Nash has barely contributed to the Zuccarello numbers. Marc Staal has been struggling a little more than past years. He is supplying fewer assists and blocks than where he has been in previous seasons at this time Some of those stars have had a largely quiet season so far. But overall, they have been scoring and winning in a tough division and are proving themselves to be an exciting team to watch.
Classic for a Reason
The Winter Classic is almost always an anomaly to some extent though. It’s a bunch of kids playing outside again. The game is sometimes full of snow and visibility is love. It’s a hard game to call. Adrenaline kicks in with the wind chill and home ice matters all the more as fans scream in the stands. That home ice does go to the Rangers in this case. Yes, it is a New York State rivalry but the New York Rangers will be closer to home than Buffalo, surely. We will see it all New Years Day when the best game of the year kicks off in the freezing cold and hockey fans everywhere get to reminisce playing in the pond of their hometown and the players have nothing to lose but pride. I could be surprised the Winter Classic, but I don’t see a W going to Buffalo in this one.