With another 14-plus hours in the air behind us, we have once again safely landed on North American soil. To conclude the trip, our plane actually landed for about an hour to refuel in Halifax, Nova Scotia -- no more than 30 minutes from my front door! Now if I could have only had a couple Donairs and some poutine from Willy's delivered to the plane -- that would have really been paradise for me. Nevertheless it was nice to feel like I was actually home, while en route "home," even if it was just for an hour.
I feel we were all a little relieved to touch down in California. Although we all agree the trip was amazing, I think we were a little traveled-out by the time those nine days were over. As I mentioned a couple times before the time change was tough to get used to, and as most of us had just gotten into the swing of things it was time for us to ship out again.
I can only imagine what the Rangers went through being there five days longer than us, playing four exhibition games in five nights, plus traveling to at least one new country every day before the regular-season games even came around. Talk about a rolling stone! But that's hockey – I'm sure they enjoyed seeing so much of Europe. I know I would have!
Game day leading up to playing the Sabres started as most road games would. We had breakfast at the hotel, bus to the arena and then the pre-game skate. Everyone has their routines that coexist seamlessly without interrupting each other. Although we all perform the same basic steps to get focused and ready, everyone has their own order of operation which seems to get them going both physically and mentally.
I always find it interesting to see how other guys prepare when I join a new team. There is always something to learn or that I have never seen before that I might be able to incorporate into my routine. Once we finish up the skate, we head back to the hotel as a team for our pre-game meal and then it's every man for himself until the bus takes us back to the rink for game time.
As the game began, Buffalo came at us with a lot of speed right off the bat. They are a highly skilled, deep team that really has the ability to come at you shift after shift. I heard them described as a team without a first line, but instead a team with three second lines and I believe that's a good way to put it. They have a really well-balanced attack, which makes line matching tough on opposing teams.
Who do you play your top pair of d-men against when you can't figure out who the first line is? As the first period wore on we found ourselves spending too much time in the box, and at this level that's always going to hurt you. Giving players like [Thomas] Vanek, [Derek] Roy, and [Jason] Pominville multiple opportunities with the man advantage early on just gives them more of a feel for the game. It gave them control and forced us to battle back all night. We put ourselves in an uphill battle.
As it always happens, you never get any lucky breaks on the nights you need them the most. We missed a couple great chances around the net in the second period that could have changed momentum and closed their lead. Bobby Ryan jumped on a loose puck and snapped it home, only to have it waved off as there was a delayed penalty on the play. Then to cap it all off a rebound kicked off Cam Fowler's skate and into our own net to for their last goal to put them up 4-1.
We put a bit of a press on in the 3rd period (Buffalo didn't register a shot in the 3rd) but by then Ryan Miller had closed the door and we started the season 0-1. Having a goalie as good as Miller back there really allows them to take a few more chances and cheat on the offensive side of the puck from time to time. Knowing he can (and most often will) bail you out gives their defensemen more freedom to pinch down the boards in the offensive zone, and to jump into the rush more frequently, which is a big part of their system.
I think it just goes to show you how important every player is to a team's style and identity. Who knew your starting goalie could be such an impact on the forecheck?
After the game we packed up as quickly as possible and headed to the airport for a short flight to Stockholm, Sweden. It took is a little while to get the bags checked through security, then we were on the runway for a while waiting on our turn to take off, so we didn't actually get to the hotel in Stockholm until after 3am. This is another situation where my minor-league training has served me well.
Rarely in the minors did we play a road game and NOT get home till 3 a.m. When I woke up, I opened the curtains to get my first look at Sweden, and might I say what a beautiful place! We were staying in a hotel pretty much right on the water, the streets were full of people, and the architecture was amazing to see. The city seemed to have so much going on.
The game against the Rangers in Stockholm was a much different story than the night before. From the first shift we had a little more fire behind us. I believe the thought of traveling all that way to go home empty-handed wasn't sitting well in our dressing room, so we knew we needed a bigger effort than the night before.
About half-way through the first period, my line (myself, Andrew Cogliano, Devante Smith-Pelly) was able to sneak one past Henrik Lundqvist to get us on the board for a quick 1-0 lead. This was special because it marked the first point of Devante Smith-Pelly's NHL career! I remember how excited I was when I got my first point (I bet Marcus Johansson remembers how excited I was too), so it was nice to see a young guy get rewarded for his hard work so early.
As a third line I thought we did a pretty good job that night. We had good energy, played in the offensive zone for the majority of our shifts, created some scoring chances, and chipped in the team's only goal of the night. I couldn't have been much happier with our game, until our last shift when we gave Brad Richards a tiny bit of space, and he made us pay to make it 1-1 with about two minutes left.
We were lucky Bobby Ryan put one away for us in the shootout, and that Jonas Hiller stood on his head all night, or that 14-hour flight would have felt three times as long. Overall, I feel it was a much better game not only for me and my line, but for the team as a hole. Getting the first win of the season under our belts was a great feeling, and it made for a more relaxed trip home. In college we always said if you were only going to win one game on the weekend, make it the last one!
Looking back on the trip now, I can hardly believe it actually happened! Seeing a new part of the world, playing some international hockey, AND starting the season in the NHL makes it one of the best weeks of my life, and easily one of my most memorable experiences in hockey. Although I wish I would have had more time to tour around, I'm glad I got a taste of what Europe is like, and now I will have a better idea of what to do when I go back.
Both countries were beautiful, the people were kind and friendly, and to my surprise English was spoken virtually everywhere we went so communicating was never an issue. This trip has been a once in a lifetime experience for me, and for that I would like to thank the Anaheim Ducks, the NHL, Jokerit Helsinki (for being such good hosts), both countries of Finland and Sweden for having us, and finally Corey Masisak from NHL.com for asking me to put this blog together.
It's been a pleasure for me to share my trip with all of you, and once again I thank you for reading! All the best, and I'll see you all around the rink!