Ah, the atmosphere of an outdoor game. Skates hissing on ice, the crack of sticks on pucks, rosy cheeks, white ice, multi-colored trees and knit hats.
There weren’t any snowflakes dancing down Saturday on a mild December afternoon when, for the first time in at least 30 years, the Rangers practiced at Central Park’s Lasker Rink. Thousands of Rangers fans watched from the stands and surrounding terrain.
But there could be a wind-chill factor and a dusting on New Year’s Day when the Blueshirts face the Sabres in the first NHL game at Citi Field and the 10th Winter Classic. Saturday was a warm-up act.
The nationally televised Classic will be the fifth outdoor game in franchise history and the Rangers’ first in four years. The Blueshirts won all three games that counted: 3-2 in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2, 2012, at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and two games at Yankee Stadium against the Islanders (2-1) and Devils (7-3) in late January 2014. They lost an outdoor game that people tend to overlook: A preseason 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 1991, a match that included a third-period storm of grasshoppers.
All of the games have had twists and turns, including penalty shots, unlikely goal-scorers and controversy on and off the ice. Why expect anything else at Citi Field?
On Saturday, playing outdoors in the heart of Manhattan brought flashbacks for Ryan McDonagh, who played pond hockey in Minnesota, at Camp Randall Stadium with the University of Wisconsin and in the 2012 Winter Classic.
“You get the taste of it, the sun in your eyes, the glare on the ice. It’s a lot of memories,” he said. “It’s [the 2018 Winter Classic] a month away, but it’s going to come quick. This’ll help us for sure, especially some of the guys who may not have played an outdoor game.”
That’s not the case for Henrik Lundqvist, who is 3-0 outdoors and made 34 saves in the 2012 Classic, including one on a penalty shot.
With 19.6 seconds remaining in regulation and the Rangers leading 3-2, the officials ruled that McDonagh had covered the puck in the crease with his glove and awarded Flyers forward Daniel Briere a penalty shot. Lundqvist made the save with his left pad to secure the win, prompting a celebration from John Tortorella, but the coach came out swinging nonetheless, accusing the league and NBC of collusion.
“I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs or what to turn this into an overtime game,” Tortorella said. “ . . . I thought the game was refereed horribly. Maybe they wanted to get it to overtime. I’m not sure if they had a meeting about that or what. But we stood in there. Again [the refs] are good guys, but I thought tonight, in that third period, it was disgusting.”
Tortorella later apologized to refs Ian Walsh and Dennis LaRue in person and said: “It was wrong with my sarcasm and frustration, and I apologize to everyone involved. That was not my intent and I certainly handled it the wrong way.”
Tortorella was fined $30,000 for the comments.
There also was friction between Mike Rupp, who scored two of his four goals as a Ranger that day, and Jaromir Jagr, who played for the Flyers at the time. After the 6-5 grinder scored past Sergei Bobrovsky’s glove to cut the Rangers’ deficit to 2-1, Rupp saluted the benches, mocking the legendary Jagr, who had been saluting fans after goals.
Asked about the taunt afterward, Rupp feigned innocence. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I was just happy to get a goal.” Jagr fired back. “I was hoping someone would score and we would salute him back,” he said.
The first game of the Stadium Series was delayed for two hours because of sun glare, and Dominic Moore and other teammates tossed baseballs to warm up in the mid-20s chill. The Devils led 3-2 after the first period on two goals by Bobby Holik and one by Travis Zajac. Moore and Marc Staal scored for the Rangers.
Mats Zuccarello scored the tying and winning goals in the second and Martin Brodeur was pulled. Derek Stepan scored on a penalty shot against Cory Schneider in the third in the 7-3 rout.
Three days later, the Rangers beat the Islanders, 2-1. Dan Carcillo scored in the third and Lundqvist made 30 saves.
“I had two [outdoor] games my first year and they were some of the best events of my life,’’ coach Alain Vigneault, a Quebec native, said Saturday while looking at the surroundings. “I never thought I would get to do this.”