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How Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist became the king of outdoor hockey games

NEW YORK --Henrik Lundqvist loves outdoor hockey games.

"I could easily play one every year and I would not be tired of it," said the New York Rangers goalie.

He loves seeing the stands filled with 41,000 fans. He loves spending time with friends and family in a more casual way than a regular-season game normally permits. He loves the cool, new swag created for events such as the 2018 NHL Winter Classic at Citi Field. He loves the challenges that come from stopping pucks in freezing temperatures and with blinding glare coming off the ice.

But he doesn't love them unconditionally. The condition he places on that affection: that Lundqvist and the Rangers have to win the game. Otherwise, every memory is tainted, every experience becomes slightly less special.

That is what's on the line for Lundqvist in an outdoor game. And that, friends, is why Lundqvist is now 4-0-0 in stadia for the Rangers after their 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres in Monday's Winter Classic.

"It's Game 38 or something for us, but when you're playing in this game, that's it. It's the only one," Lundqvist said. "And you want to make sure you get the two points, and make sure that you get to sit down in a week or in the summer and look back on this as a great memory. Because you need to win."

This is something that Lundqvist communicated to his teammates in the Rangers' clubhouse -- on loan from the New York Mets -- before the Winter Classic. That family skate? These pretty new sweaters? The "boys-on the pond" nostalgia they were all feeling as they hit a rink built atop a baseball diamond?

You'll hate thinking about any of if those memories aren't associated with a victory.

Those are the stakes.

"We discussed it in the room. 'You won't enjoy this, look back on this, unless you win this game,'" said Lundqvist. "One mistake can cost you the game -- and the memory of it, as well."

Which is why Lundqvist remains dominant in outdoor games. He won at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, stopping Daniel Briere on a penalty shot with 19.6 seconds remaining in 2012. In 2014, he defeated both the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders at Yankee Stadium. On the first day of 2018, Lundqvist dropped his career outdoor goals-against average to 1.98 and increased his save percentage to .934 with the win over Buffalo.

Part of that success is Lundqvist overcoming the elements. Thanks to the 1 p.m. ET start, the ice at Monday's Winter Classic was partially covered in shadows. Look one way and there was blinding glare. Look the other way and the puck could be hard to pick up.

"Playing on the right side in the first period, every time I got a puck and looked cross-ice ... that's where the sun was shining. It was a little strange," said Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. "I couldn't tell the jersey colors. You could just see the guys that were standing over there. You just had to realize that you didn't want to pass the puck to someone who wasn't on your team, and try to limit your mistakes."

Lundqvist said the shadows stopped bothering him about 10 minutes into the game; in fact, the only time glare was an issue was when his eyes adjusted after he left the rink for the locker room between periods.

But the ice was a different issue. Game-time temperatures at Citi Field were just above 20 degrees, and it had an effect on the way Lundqvist had to approach Buffalo's offensive rushes.

"Because it was so cold, it was more about the way the puck was bouncing," he said. "It was so cold, the puck bounced right in front of me and it was hard to tell how high it was going to bounce. I had to get behind it and get the glove behind it."

The hard ice also meant the game moved more quickly than it would, say, on the spongier surface at Madison Square Garden.

"It was a fast ice. That was the toughest part for me," Lundqvist said. "To not slide out of the situation, because there was so much speed coming at you in every situation. Much faster than you're used to, normally."

As he has in the past, Lundqvist capably handled the adverse conditions, making 31 saves. One of them was this tie-preserving beauty against Zemgus Girgensons, who fired the puck at Lundqvist after a Jack Eichel pass.

"There are always two or three saves in every game that are game-changers. He just sticks to his instincts. Sticks to his positioning," said Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonaghof Lundqvist.

Lundqvist kept the game tied -- and got help from his defense on a Sabres' overtime 2-on-1 -- until J.T. Miller ended it at 2:43 of OT after a Jacob Josefson tripping penalty gave the Rangers a power play.

"The last seven or eight minutes, I know the next goal is going to be a winner," said Lundqvist. "It's going to be really hard to come back from that. So every chance we had or they had, everything was on the line."

That included a two important points in the Eastern Conference standings, as the Rangers moved past the Columbus Blue Jackets into third place in the Metro Division, with 47 points. But it also included permission to look back fondly at the 2018 Winter Classic.

For Lundqvist, it was "permission granted."

"If you don't win the game, you don't walk around, think about it and have a smile on your face," he said.

With a smile.

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