NEW YORK – The Buffalo Sabres knew heading into the Winter Classic they were in for something special. They just weren't prepared for how big it is.
Fireworks and fighter jets greeted their arrival in Citi Field. The crowd of nearly 42,000 roared for a circling bald eagle and the national anthem.
"All that brings chills to your spine," center Jack Eichel said.
Forget chills. It actually froze the Sabres.
They were in a 2-0 hole after 8:20 and looked like they didn't belong anywhere near the marquee game. Slowly, they learned to handle things and rallied for a tie in the third period. It was the start that crushed them Monday in a 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers.
"We've got a lot of guys that probably haven't been on that stage in a while," right wing Kyle Okposo said. "That's more like getting ready for a playoff game, and that's kind of the stage that was set with all the media, all the hype and the attention.
"It was a good learning experience for us, so hopefully when we do get in the playoffs, whenever that may be, then we can draw on this."
Okposo likened the poor start to dipping a toe in the water. The experienced Rangers dived right in.
"It kind of" stinks "afterward to think that we weren't ready to play early, and then we played a really good two periods," defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said.
Beleaguered Sabres fans are justified in being tired of lessons learned, but the fact is the team doesn't have a lot experience on a grand stage. While the Rangers were rolling up a 13-4 shot start, the Sabres were trying to thaw their emotions.
"The first period, it just seemed to go by in two seconds," right wing Sam Reinhart said. "There was so much going on."
Most of it was going in the Sabres' zone.
"They came out really good," said Buffalo goaltender Robin Lehner, who made 14 saves in the first period and 39 in the game. "They were on top of it but started taking penalties, and we started climbing back in. We managed to stop the bleeding at two. We got one goal, and we were back in the game again."
Reinhart's power-play goal in the opening minute of the second period led to Ristolainen's goal in the opening minute of the third. The Sabres, who have shown resiliency during their 10-20-9 start, were a goal away from winning. Instead, the Rangers' J.T. Miller earned it on the power play with 2:17 left.
"We responded in the right way," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "I know if you talked to everybody in that room, obviously they would have liked to have the result be different, but it was just a great experience."
The Winter Classic did indeed breathe life into the moribund club. They joked for cameras during the last month. They anticipated the experience. They brought their friends and family to the Big Apple.
"Obviously, it stinks to lose," Eichel said. "There's still a lot that you can take away from this experience. You never know if this is going to happen to you again or if you're going to get this opportunity. It's pretty special we were able to do it."
The trick now is not coming down too far from the high. There are still 43 games left, and the playoffs are a long shot, to say the least. Buffalo needs to stop dipping its toe and dive into its opportunities to build a brighter future, one that includes more time in the NHL spotlight.
"It was fun to go through it with this group of guys," defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "We had a lot of fun with it. We're playing better hockey each and every game leading up to this game.
"We can't stop there. We've got to keep pushing forward and getting better and better every day. Definitely a fun experience, but now that this is over with, we've still got a lot of hockey left."
The Sabres will resume their season with a trip to Minnesota, Winnipeg and Philadelphia this week. The network cameras won't be around. There won't be rock bands and fire plumes circling the rinks.
There will be an opportunity to keep growing.
"I enjoyed the experience a lot," Okposo said. "The game could have gone either way. I was proud of the guys the way we played. I think we played a really good hockey game. I thought at times we really took it to them. We probably had the better of the play, but we didn't get the result we wanted.
"You have to really just take the experience and relish in it and look back on it as a positive."