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Lundqvist great outdoors again in Winter Classic

Win against Sabres keeps Rangers goalie undefeated in elements, ties him with Tony Esposito for eighth all time

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

NEW YORK -- As Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel carried the puck up the right wing late in the third period Monday, Tony Esposito was watching on television at home in St. Pete Beach, Florida.

Esposito saw Eichel pass into the slot, forward Zemgus Girgensons snap a shot, and New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist do what he has so many times before: make a big save.

 

[RELATED: Miller overtime goal lifts Rangers past Sabres in Winter Classic | Swedish goaltender connection for Rangers, Sabres at Winter Classic]

 

Lundqvist flashed his left pad and kept the game tied with 2:15 left. The 2018 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic went to overtime, and the Rangers won 3-2 when forward J.T. Miller scored on the power play before 41,821 outdoors at Citi Field.

"He's certainly in that vein with the great goalies of all time," Esposito told NHL.com in a phone interview. "Statistics don't lie."

The win was Lundqvist's 423rd in the NHL, tying him with Esposito for eighth all time behind Martin Brodeur (691), Patrick Roy (551), Ed Belfour (484), Roberto Luongo (459), Curtis Joseph (454), Terry Sawchuk (445) and Jacques Plante (437).

Lundqvist made 31 saves, giving him 20,271 in his NHL career, passing Nikolai Khabibulin (20,258) for eighth all time and most among goaltenders born outside North America.

He improved to 4-0-0 with a 1.98 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in outdoor games, and won in his 37th NHL venue. He also defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 in the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, and the New Jersey Devils 7-3 and New York Islanders 2-1 in the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Yankee Stadium in New York.

Video: NYR@BUF: Lundqvist slams the door on Okposo

Yes, he's 35. He'll turn 36 on March 2. But he's still playing at an elite level, and there's no reason to think he can't keep adding to his statistics for the foreseeable future. Since Oct. 31, among goaltenders who have played at least 19 games, he ranks fourth in save percentage (.929) and fifth in goals-against average (2.38).

"He can probably play another three or four years effectively," said Esposito, 74, who played until he was 40. "I just think that he should continue to play as long as he's healthy and contributing. I don't see why a guy has to quit just because he becomes a certain age. I just think that the goaltenders in history, the great goalies, played up until 40 years old."

Playing outdoors highlights Lundqvist's defining characteristic in any environment.

"He's so focused," Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei said. "It's fun to watch him before the game and in warmups. He's so dialed in."

The Winter Classic came with so many distractions: a film crew following the team for a TV special, extra media attention, extra ticket requests, et cetera.

Video: NYR@BUF: Lundqvist turns away Girgensons's late shot

Lundqvist embraced it, but with a caveat.

"It's just a fun experience to be part of," Lundqvist said. "It's something that you don't take for granted for sure. We also discussed it in the room: You're not going to enjoy this and look back at it as a great memory unless you win this game."

The baseball stadium was an alien environment: taxi cabs on mock city streets in the outfield behind the benches, fans away from the glass and soaring up in the stands, 20.5-degree temperatures at face-off, bright sun, shadows creeping across the ice during the first period.

Lundqvist had trouble adjusting his eyes after warmup. He had to adjust to the shadows for the first 10 minutes. He had to make sure he got his body and glove behind the puck, because he was unsure how it would bounce. But he focused on the details, just as he did with the three-piece gray suit he wore for the postgame press conference.

"I could easily play one every year and not be tired of it," Lundqvist said. "We play 82 games, but to get this opportunity in front of so many people and the excitement around the game, it doesn't get old to me."

A lot of great players never got a chance to showcase their skills in an NHL outdoor game, let alone do it four times and go undefeated. Esposito said he played outdoors once in his life. He doesn't remember exactly where or when or why -- he thinks it was in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in the 1970s for Canada -- but he remembers at least one thing.

"I thought it was a lot of fun," Esposito said. "The thing I liked about it, we played in the afternoon, and it was pretty bright out and everything. It just was so unique, it reminded me of when you were a kid, you know? I imagine he's got the same feeling. I just think that you don't get the chance to play in a lot of those games, and I think he should really enjoy it, and obviously he's got success in it. He likes playing outdoors."

He laughed.

"If you don't lose, you're 4-0 in outdoor games," he said, "your whole team likes to play outdoors."

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