Weekly Feature



2015-02-26 / Sports

Stempniak finally makes Rangers’ FNC debut

November’s lake-effect snowstorm delays native’s latest hometown stop
JASON NADOLINSKI
Sports Reporter


West Seneca native Lee Stempniak returned home as a member of the New York Rangers to face the Buffalo Sabres Friday in a game that was supposed to have been played back in November — but had to be rescheduled due to the massive lake-effect snow event that buried the area. Stempniak, who joined the Rangers this past offseason, will return to Buffalo on Saturday, March 14. 
Photo by Patrick McPartland West Seneca native Lee Stempniak returned home as a member of the New York Rangers to face the Buffalo Sabres Friday in a game that was supposed to have been played back in November — but had to be rescheduled due to the massive lake-effect snow event that buried the area. Stempniak, who joined the Rangers this past offseason, will return to Buffalo on Saturday, March 14. Photo by Patrick McPartland Lee Stempniak has had the opportunity to play in the home of the Buffalo Sabres — the team he grew up following as a young hockey player — 10 times prior to joining the New York Rangers this past offseason.

Visit number 11, however, produced a first: Stempniak and the rest of the Rangers had to wait nearly three months to the day of the originally-schedule date of New York’s first road game with Buffalo to actually play the Sabres thanks to a lake-effect snow event in the days leading up to their meeting that buried the city and the southtowns in five or more feet of snow.

The unprecedented move by the league to postpone the contest meant that Stempniak and the rest of the Rangers would go from playing the Sabres during a set of four games played every other day the week of the original date — Friday, Nov. 21 — to playing them during a stretch of three games in four days after the contest was moved to Friday, Feb. 20.

Against any other team, or even the Sabres any other year, such a switch might be a problem for a team that currently sits tied for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. But, with the 2014-15 Sabres struggling more often than not to generate offense, much less victories, the Rangers were up for the challenge Friday, posting a 3-1 win.

“It’s always definitely fun to go home,” Stempniak said during a phone interview Monday. “Just knowing I have a lot of family and friends watching, and having the opportunity to catch up with a lot of people who’ve been a big part of my life, that’s a great thing about this job. Sharing these kinds of moments with people like that is something that’s really special to me.”

Had the game somehow gone on as originally planned back in November, chances are Stempniak wouldn’t have been able to share much of anything with his friends and family, at least not in person. Stempniak’s boyhood home was covered under mounds of snow and, with his mom unable to return home from her job downtown in the days immediately following the worst of the snowfall, his father was left to hold down the fort. Fortunately, Stempniak was able to keep in relatively constant contact with his parents and his brother — whom his mom stayed with until the streets became passable — and was able to keep a handle on the situation.

“Fortunately it was more of just an inconvenience for everyone rather than a really serious situation,” Stempniak said. “I know, in terms of my hockey career, I’ve never had something like this come up. The closest thing to something like this was in college, when we got to a game at Colgate late and the game was delayed for two hours because the driving from Cornell was horrible. But, whenever there’s been the threat of bad weather in the past for any of the NHL teams I’ve been on, we just leave a day early if we can to avoid it. I think it was totally understandable why the NHL did what they did, though, given the amount of snow that came down there.

“The good thing about the situation is that I was able to talk to them a lot and therefore knew everything was OK,” Stempniak continued. “When you go out on the ice you have to put stuff like that aside, but they were certainly in the back of my mind while I was playing. Especially when it comes to family, it’s only natural to still worry about the people you love and care about, even when you do have to focus on your job.”

Fortunately for Stempniak, he was able to go out and do just that Friday: focus on the task of helping the Rangers beat the Sabres. Though Stempniak didn’t personally record a point that night, the Rangers solidified their spot near the top of the Metropolitan Division standings with the victory.

Stempniak did, however, reach a milestone during the Rangers’ 6-5 win over the division-leading New York Islanders on Feb. 16 — his 200th career regular-season assist.

“It’s pretty neat,” Stempniak said of hitting the milestone. “It just means that I’ve been fortunate to play in the NHL for a number of years. It’s actually hard to believe I’ve been playing as long as I have been when I think about it. But, I love every minute of it and know that I’m fortunate to be on a great team right now. It’s always a fun part of your career when you can be a part of as good of a team as we are this year.”

Stempniak and the Rangers should be a lock to qualify for the playoffs if they keep up their current pace, and at their current rate have a chance to contend for the Eastern Conference’s top seed. If star goalie Henrik Lundqvist continues to recover from a neck injury that has kept him out of the lineup since he sustained it Jan. 31, and ultimately returns to the crease for the Rangers, their chances at making the deep postseason run that Stempniak — whose current deal with the Rangers comes to an end at the season’s conclusion — envisions New York making should only increase.

“We’ve got a really good defense, especially when Lundqvist is in net, and we defend the ice well as a team,” Stempniak said. “We’ve got a lot of team speed too, and that helps us to generate a lot offensively when we go on the attack. It helps us put other teams on their heels. Playing well defensively allows us to use our speed offensively, and that’s just a good recipe for success considering the skill that we have as a group of forwards.

“I really feel like I’m living out my dream job right now, and my hope is that I’ve still got a number of years left to keep having fun,” Stempniak continued. “I love going to the ice every day, and I definitely like it in New York. It’s a great organization. But, all I can do is take it one day at a time and focus on playing well the rest of this year. After that, we’ll see what happens over the summer.”

email: jnadolinski@beenews.com

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