NEW YORK – As a group of New York Rangers fans walked near Madison Square Garden, they saw an ad for Monday's Winter Classic. They were not impressed by the Buffalo Sabres as the opponent.
"Of all the Eastern Conference teams for them to play," one Rangers fan said. "I’d rather even see Carolina.”
It was hard to blame them. Buffalo is 10-20-8, last in the Eastern Conference and 30th in the 31-team NHL.
But as the Sabres enter the marquee game of the regular season, they're eager to prove they belong on the big stage.
"It's a great place and great opportunity to bring our best game and show the type of team we are," left wing Evander Kane said Sunday after practice in Citi Field.
The Sabres had a blast skating outside in the baseball stadium. They posed for a team photo in their special uniforms. They held a regular practice, then welcomed friends and family to the ice for a leisurely skate.
As they changed out of their equipment, they relished the fact their seven-month wait was finally over.
"Since they announced it, all of us have been looking forward to it," center Ryan O'Reilly said. "It's a cool thing. You see these games happen every year. We finally get the opportunity, and it's pretty amazing. I'm glad we're a part of it."
Though there have been miserable times in Sabreland, the team enters the showcase game feeling good about itself. Buffalo rallied for an overtime victory Friday in New Jersey, upping its record to 4-3-4 in the last 11 games.
It has the group believing it deserves to be here, no matter what the naysayers think.
"Having this opportunity on the world stage can hopefully give our team a boost because we have been playing better as of late," coach Phil Housley said. "Our guys are going to be ready. They're playing pretty well. We've got a little confidence right now, so hopefully this game will give us a boost."
Being in the Big Apple has certainly boosted morale.
"You know everyone's watching," defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "It's been awesome to be part of the experience, and I'm looking forward to it. You watch it every year, and then to be part of it is pretty cool.
"You look at different experiences or different achievements that you've had in hockey, and this is right up there for me. It's been awesome to play in the NHL. I've been lucky enough to play for 10 years, and I haven't had a chance to play in an outdoor game. I'm really looking forward to it."
The Winter Classic has grown in almost unimaginable ways since it debuted in Buffalo in 2008. Sabres right wing Jason Pominville, who played in that 2-1 shootout loss to Pittsburgh, is as amazed as anyone.
"I mean, look at this," Pominville said while motioning to a packed media room. "The buildup has been phenomenal. The first one was a lot of unknowns. No one really knew what the turnout was going to be. Obviously, the way it went, the way the fans responded, the way it looked on TV, the way the game ended, I don't think you could have asked for a better scenario for the league.
"Now the whole buildup around it from press conferences in the summertime to TV shows, everything around it has been really amazing for us to be part of it again."
Players for both teams bundled up Sunday as a brisk wind blew through Citi Field, making it feel even colder than the 16-degree reading on the thermometer. The weather is expected to be similar when the puck drops at 1 p.m.
What will be different is having more than 41,000 people in the stands rather than a handful of workers. Even the empty stadium was imposing and impressive.
"I missed a drill or two or a rep or two just kind of looking around, kind of soaking it all in," Kane said. "It's definitely something that you're fortunate to be a part of, and it's an experience I'm trying to enjoy."
Few things are as fun for professional athletes as winning. The Sabres get a chance to show the Rangers, their fans and the hockey world that things are trending in the right direction.
"It gives us the opportunity to win another game and use this momentum to find ourselves a little more," O'Reilly said. "Obviously, the hype around the game is a real cool thing to be a part of. We're trying to climb back, find ourselves, and it starts with this game here."