The 2018 Winter Classic lived up to its billing and was certainly one of the better incarnations of the event. The New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres were neck-in-in for the entirety of the contest, but it ended very disappointingly for Sabres fans after an admirable rally.
New York opened the scoring less than five minutes into the first when Paul Carey was left wide open in front and snapped a shot that Robin Lehner had no chance on. Michael Grabner made it 2-0 less than four minutes later as a result of some lackadaisical Buffalo defense. Though at that point it seemed like a blowout may have been imminent, Buffalo would not stay down for long.
Less than a minute into the second period, Jack Eichel sent a shot through a Sam Reinhart screen on the power play that the latter was able to corral and cash past Henrik Lundqvist. It’s encouraging to see Reinhart screening and scoring from in front of the net, it’s one of his biggest strengths and undoubtedly something he needs to keep doing in order to turn his woeful season around. Buffalo fought hard for the rest of the period but the Rangers held tough. It remained 2-1 heading into the third.
The Sabres’ hard work paid off in the first minute of the final frame. Rasmus Ristolainen sent a shot with eyes through traffic that went top shelf on the King to tie the game. Ristolainen now has goals in consecutive games after having none through his first 28, also a very good sign. Both goaltenders were locked in from that point forward and the contest went to overtime. Unfortunately for the Sabres, their hard effort was about to be squandered.
A combination of a lazy tripping penalty on Jacob Josefson and business as usual bad defense from Marco Scandella sealed Buffalo’s fate. On the ensuing power play, Scandella left JT Miller all alone in front of the net, and the Ranger forward made no mistake in cashing in a big Kevin Shattenkirk rebound to send the fans home happy.
Scandella has been absolutely atrocious since coming to Buffalo as the supposed “centerpiece” of the trade for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. His defense has been terrible and he’s contributed nothing on offense either. You’d have a hard time convincing me he was not a mistake at this point. Phil Housley needs to stop giving top-pair minutes to a guy who is playing like an AHL seventh defenseman. As for Josefson, it mystifies me that we play him, let alone signed him.
I’m Robin Lehner’s biggest critic, but he played terrifically today and the loss was not at all his fault. The Swede made save after save when the Sabres needed it, including a breakaway on Grabner and a point-blank on Rick Nash. He allowed Buffalo to gather itself and get back in the game. It was his best game of the year by far, and he saved if for a pretty big stage.
The handshake after the game was the highlight of the day for me. Both teams put up an incredible fight and the mutual show of respect was very cool too see. I really like that this has become part of the Winter Classic tradition as well.
It was a very solid all around performance by Buffalo, but the team and fans alike left the game with a sour taste. Hopefully the team will continue to improve and will take momentum from this.