It will be a big week in the Big Apple and environs for the Buffalo Sabres.
It's three games in six days, including a spot in the NHL's premier regular season showcase. Certainly the league and the Sabres were hoping that Buffalo was not going to be in last place in the Eastern Conference heading into this stretch but that's where the Sabres will likely be when they play the New York Rangers outdoors Jan. 1 at Citi Field in Queens.
The Sabres have been looking forward to this game since word leaked in March, so they're going to try to make the best of the opportunity.
"Being named the new head coach in June and knowing this time was coming, you feel very fortunate," said Sabres coach Phil Housley. "I'm really looking forward to it. I'm honored. I think our group is looking forward to it ... When we get to that point, we'd like to be in a better position but we're representing Buffalo and this organization and the fans and the community. We're going to try to do our best to win that game because it's a great opportunity for our organization."
The NHL's collective bargaining agreement mandates that teams are off from both games and practices Dec. 24-26. Teams can travel the morning of Dec. 27 for a game that night and that's what the Sabres will be doing, leaving Buffalo Wednesday morning and heading right for a morning skate at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The Sabres play the New York Islanders there Wednesday before heading to practice Thursday in Newark, N.J. They play the New Jersey Devils Friday night in Prudential Center and are scheduled to practice again in the Devils' attached secondary facility on Saturday. Things start to get real on New Year's Eve with a 10 a.m. practice outdoors at Citi Field.
The Winter Classic is set for a 1 p.m. faceoff Monday and the Sabres, remember, are designated as the home team for the game because the Rangers' tax agreemment with the city does not allow them to stage home games outside of Madison Square Garden.
"I'm looking forward to Wednesday in Brooklyn right now," center Jack Eichel said after Saturday's 4-2 loss in Carolina. "They're a hot team right now and last time we went in there, we got smoked pretty good (a 5-1 loss on Oct. 7).
"The whole week is going to be really good. I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully that can do some good for us here. We have to find a way to start stringing wins together. It just cant be one, one, one, one."
The Sabres finished their pre-Christmas schedule with a 9-20-7 record, worst in the East and 30th overall in the NHL. They posted just one two-game winning streak, and that came back in October. The trip figures to be a rugged one.
The Rangers and Islanders enter the resumption of play 19-13-4 and tied for the East's two wild-card slots. Meanwhile, the Devils (21-9-5) are the surprise leaders of the Metropolitan Division one year after finishing last in the East.
The World Junior Championship has kicked the Sabres out of KeyBank Center until Jan. 9 but the NHL at least gave them a decent road trip; the team will stay in the same Lower Manhattan hotel for the entire week. When Buffalo hosted the World Juniors seven years ago, the Sabres were furious when they saw an NHL schedule that started with a trip to Calgary and Edmonton, came home for a New Year's Day game the team requested – and then sent them back on the road, all the way to San Jose, Denver and Phoenix.
"Certainly it's an inconvenience to us being out of our building," admitted Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill. "But I also think it's been great that the NHL put us in New York for a week at a time and we're not bouncing from hotel to hotel. We're based in one spot and that's a little bit better."
Things get more difficult after the Winter Classic. The Sabres return home immediately after that game and head back on the road Jan. 3 for a game the next night in Minnesota. They play Jan. 5 in Winnipeg and Jan. 7 in Philadelphia before finally playing their next home game against the Jets on Jan. 9.
But this entire segment of the season is mostly about the Winter Classic. It's the game the Sabres have been asked about for a month, pretty much as soon as the NBC Sports Network reality show cameras started showing up around the rink.
"There's a lot of buildup for it and your families will start to come," said winger Kyle Okposo. "It's a special game so you've got to cherish the moment and have fun with it. I really like the buildup, the family skate, all the media, seeing the baseball stadium, everything leading up to the game with the anthem and performances. I'm really looking forward to all that."
"My family is coming the 29th and they'll have the whole weekend in New York," added defenseman Jake McCabe. "It will be great to have a couple dinners with them, they'll be in New York for New Year's Eve. You never know how many of these you'll have in your career. This might be the only one. To be able to share it with family and friends will be great and I know the families are really looking forward to it as well."