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For Rangers, Winter Classic is a warm New Year’s treat

They are all pumped up to play the Sabres in the outdoor game at Citi Field on Monday.

The Rangers and Sabres practiced outdoors on the Citi Field ice on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, and discussed how pumped up they all are to be participating in Monday's Winter Classic outdoor game at Citi Field. (Credit: Newsday / Ted Starkey)

Sunshine is in the forecast for the NHL Winter Classic at Citi Field on Monday afternoon. That’s good news because it eliminates worry about a long rain delay like the one at the 2011 Classic in Pittsburgh. It also is dicey because it brings into play a possible glare delay like the one at the Devils-Rangers game at Yankee Stadium in late January 2014.

When it comes to outdoor hockey, you never can tell, except to say that the conditions just do not matter. There is such enthusiasm among players, coaches, fans and league officials that the weather report always is essentially the same. It reads this way: Cool. Very cool.

The Winter Classic and its spinoffs, such as the Devils-Rangers and Islanders-Rangers games in the Bronx during Super Bowl week, have become collectively the biggest thing in hockey. The sport gets treated to a level of attention that it almost never gets in a season. The crowds are more than twice the size of turnouts for the usual indoor contests.

Outdoor games are definitely in. Anything that happens in them becomes frozen in time. For instance, goalies stop penalty shots all the time. It happened against Brady Skjei of the Rangers in overtime of their 3-2 shootout loss to the Red Wings on Friday night, and it was hardly discussed after the game. In contrast, Henrik Lundqvist denied Daniel Briere with 19.6 seconds left in the 2012 Winter Classic on a baseball field in Philadelphia, and people still talk about it.

“The first game outside was obviously special, something you’ll always remember. Especially the way it played out at the end,” Lundqvist said when he was asked about it Friday. “It was very dramatic. And to do it in front of so many people, in that whole atmosphere, it was a pretty cool feeling.”

True, the ice might get slow and sloppy, especially if snow falls, but the feeling among hockey aficionados is, so what?

“You hit it bang on,” Rick Nash said when someone mentioned that mindset. Having played in the Yankee Stadium games, the Rangers winger added, “It feels like an ‘Event.’ Something like that is not really about the actual hockey game, you’re not going to get the best conditions. It’s going to be cold. But it’s more just enjoying the whole event, the show that they put on.

“It’s not like a regular game, where the fans are right on top of you, but it’s loud. You sense it,” he said.

If the Monday temperature in Queens is in the teens, so be it. Hockey players are a hardy lot to begin with, and they are used to the cold. Skjei recalled having played an outdoor game when he was at the University of Minnesota. He said the benches were heated. It was sort of a relief to get on the ice.

Nor do players and coaches complain about being filmed non-stop by documentarians, what with a “Road to the Winter Classic” series having become standard. “They’re just there. You just get used to it,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “After a while, you don’t even notice that they’re there. We’re focused on the game that we have on hand.”

Vigneault added of his players, who will face the Sabres in what technically will be a Buffalo home game: “I’m sure the guys are going to be ready. This is a special occasion for this group. Some of us have been in two of these outstanding events, so I’m really looking forward to the game on the First.”

It all is liberating and invigorating. “It brings you back,” Vinni Lettieri said, “to when you were a kid.” That holds true even if you basically still are a kid. Lettieri, 22, made his NHL debut Friday as a replacement for Chris Kreider (out indefinitely with a blood clot) and scored his first goal.

He has played in two outdoor games, one with Lincoln, Nebraska of the USHL and another with the University of Minnesota against Ohio State. Each time was a big deal. “I was telling my buddies that everything is magnified. There’s media, there’s great food. The experience is all incredible,” Lettieri said. “When I came here, I said every day in pro hockey is like the Winter Classic. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like. It’s just cool for the fans, cool for the players.”

Four years after they swept two games in the Bronx, the Rangers will try to go 3-0 in New York ballparks when they take the ice at the home of the Mets. They are honored to have been asked. “It’s one of those things that you’ll always remember when it’s all said and done,” Nash said. “You played in the Winter Classic.”

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