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As Winter Classic nears, how much have Sabres' struggles affected TV ratings?

Considering they are in second-to-last place in the entire National Hockey League, the Buffalo Sabres might have been expected to have a huge drop in TV ratings this season.

But the ratings decline isn't as big as you might expect.

Before the Sabres' 3-2 loss to the New York Islanders Wednesday, they averaged a 5.5 rating on MSG and NBCSN this season, compared to a 6.2 at this point last season.

That's a decline of more than 10 percent for what it is annually one of the highest-rated markets in the NHL. But it could have been a lot worse considering they are the lowest-scoring team in the league and many of their games have been pretty dull.

You also might think the Sabres' poor season would frighten NBC, which is carrying the 10th annual Winter Classic on New Year's Day between Buffalo and the New York Rangers from Citi Field in New York.

NBC's executive producer Sam Flood said in a conference call that the Sabres deserved to play in the 10th anniversary of the game because they took the risk to host the first one against Pittsburgh in then Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"It changed the way hockey was viewed," said Flood, calling it a must-see TV event.

In cold light of day, this was no instant classic How fitting it was that the Sabres and Penguins wore retro jerseys . . . the Winter Classic set back the league's image 30 years

NBC and the NHL believe or at least hope it really doesn't matter what teams are in the Winter Classic because the idea of playing outdoor games makes it attractive anyway.

"I think most hockey people are a little surprised that the Sabres aren't doing better than this," said Flood. "You didn't expect the Sabres to be where they are right now. In the same breath, there is something about a big stage that makes people play a little bit better. And it will create better competition hopefully and the Sabres will want to step up and want to show they are better than their record indicates."

NBC analyst Mike Milbury suggested it doesn't matter what teams are in the outdoor game.

"I think it is almost irrelevant now," said Milbury. "I think Sam put it right. These players are on a big stage in front of a crowd as big as they've ever played before. I think they will be motivated. Despite the fact they have stumbled along, the Sabres will rise to the occasion."

NBC notes that the annual Winter Classic has had seven of the 10 most-watched regular season NHL games nationally on record.

It may be difficult for the game to approach the local rating for the 2008 inaugural Winter Classic.

That game, in which Pittsburgh won, 2-1, in a shootout goal in the snow by Sidney Crosby, had a 38.2 rating on WGRZ-TV. That's about what Buffalo Bills games have averaged this season.

Local ratings for the Jan. 1 Winter Classic games not involving the Sabres have steadily dropped.

The Detroit-Chicago game in the second one in 2009 had a 10.1 local rating, which is the only Winter Classic besides the Buffalo game to hit a double-digit rating here.

From 2010 through 2015, the games averaged ratings between 5.3 and 8.6.

However, the 2016 game had a 4.8 local rating and the 2017 game had a 2.5 local rating.

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