ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - It was billed the Winter Classic and pretty much lived up to its name.
The biggest crowd in NHL history, the first regular-season outdoor game on U.S. soil, and the game's brightest star wins it. Safe to say the NHL went home happy Tuesday after Sidney Crosby's shootout winner lifted his Pittsburgh Penguins over the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 before 71,217 fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"When you see 70,000 people jammed into a stadium to watch hockey it's a good sign," Crosby said. "The atmosphere and environment, I don't think you can beat that. I think it's something to look back and say we had a lot of great memories being part of it."
And like the great ones before him, Sid The Kid made sure to make the moment memorable. Crosby, the third Pittsburgh shooter, ended the NHL's second-ever outdoor game when he found the five-hole on Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. The 20-year-old Crosby, who couldn't stop smiling in pre-game warm-up, jumped up in the air and raised his arms in jubilation as his teammates mobbed him on the makeshift ice surface. This wasn't just another shootout winner.
"It's a great feeling and a great experience all in all," said Crosby, who assisted on his team's opening goal. "And obviously when you win, it's a lot nicer."
Colby Armstrong of the Penguins and Brian Campbell of the Sabres scored in regulation as both teams battled through intermittent snowfalls in less-than-perfect conditions. But nearly every fan stood on their feet and stayed for the entirety of the game. It was the place to be.
"You know, it may not be the best hockey game because of the situation, because of the weather, because of the snow, but the atmosphere was incredible - it was incredible," said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff.
And unlike four years ago in Edmonton when minus-19 C temperatures nullified any physical play at the Heritage Classic between the Canadiens and Oilers, this outdoor game was not a no-hitter. Campbell had a pair of big hits in a game that featured plenty, temperatures that hovered around 0 C allowing the Penguins and Sabres to play something resembling closer to a normal game.
The record NHL crowd arrived hours before the game to tailgate NFL-like outside Ralph Wilson Stadium, a party atmosphere reigning throughout on New Year's Day.
NHL facilities operations manager Dan Craig, because of an NFL game here Dec. 23, was allotted only half the time he had in Edmonton four years ago to put in the ice, but it held up for the most part. One area inside the blue-line near the Sabres bench gave Craig's crew problems all game long and produced a few delays as they tried to continually fix it.
The snow on the ice affected the passing game, the puck bouncing over stick blades. It was by no coincidence that both goals in regulation were scored early in periods when the ice had just been flooded.
In a sharp move, Zambonis also scraped the ice midway through all three periods to clean away some of the snow. It produced more delays, but the players' safety mattered most.
"I thought they did a pretty good job of trying to maintain the ice," said Crosby.
Penguins goalie Ty Conklin this time came out on the winning end after dropping a 4-3 decision in the Edmonton goal four years ago at the Heritage Classic. He stopped 36 shots for the win Tuesday to improve to 5-0-0 on the season since his call-up from the AHL. He somehow resurfaced in the NHL just in time to start again in an outdoor game.
The fans were on their feet before the pre-game warm-up to welcome the players from both teams as they made the long trek from the football dressing rooms, through the tunnel and out to the rink. The ovation sent chills, just another reminder that the biggest crowd in NHL history made this such a special day. The players could feel the moment as well, unable to wipe the smile off their faces as they battled the snow-covered ice surface in warm-up. They were kids again.
"I think the warm-up when you come on the ice and the pre-game ceremony, the initial feel out there is probably something you remember the most," said Crosby.
"Once you're in the game, we're all competitive. We all want to win this. So you get back to thinking of the things that you have to do and you probably don't take things in as much because you're trying to win the game."
The players hit the ice for real in time for a 1:25 p.m. ET puck drop, a heavy snowfall giving the stadium a winter wonderland postcard moment. While the images were TV-friendly, they weren't hockey ideal. The snowfall at game time reduced players' visibility, a league concern, but not enough to delay the start.
Crosby gave the game the fast start it needed, blowing in from the left side and trying a shot that was stopped by Miller, only to see Armstrong pound home the rebound just 21 seconds in to give Pittsburgh the 1-0 lead. The Penguins, in their powder-blue retro jerseys, celebrated like it was the opening goal of the Stanley Cup final.
Crosby produced another highlight in the first period, batting a bouncing puck over Sabres defenceman Jaroslav Spacek and nearly skating around him for a chance that would have been one of the plays of the year.
The Sabres, some of them wearing eye black like football players, were slow to come around, but dominated the visitors in the middle period, outshooting Pittsburgh 14-2. They tied the game 1-1 when Campbell found the top corner over Conklin's glove side 1:25 into the period, the Sabres' blue-liner taking a nifty cross-ice pass from Tim Connolly.
The Penguins, despite having the wind at their back, didn't get their first shot on goal until the 18:08 mark.
The buzzer sounded at the 10-minute mark of the third period, signalling for the teams to switch ends after another Zamboni scrape. The switch was to ensure both teams got 30 minutes apiece at each end, a rule put in place in case the wind was a major factor. It turned out the wind wasn't nearly as strong as it is for many Buffalo Bills games. The winds varied from 10 to 20 kilometres an hour throughout the afternoon.
Sixty minutes wasn't enough. Neither was 65. With most of the 71,217 fans still in their seats, Crosby's shootout winner decided a game that has to be considered a success for the NHL.
"This is the type of event we certainly will be looking at doing in the future," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Will the outdoor game become an annual occurrence? That's a question the NHL hopes to answer from within after a careful de-briefing of the Winter Classic over the next month or so. Clubs are already lined up hoping to stage the next one, with Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Colorado and the New York Rangers among the apparent suitors.
A source said Tuesday that maybe even two outdoor games could be held next season. Or maybe none at all. It depends greatly on the league's analysis of the Winter Classic.
The event gave the league the kind of U.S. national media attention it does not get aside from the Stanley Cup final and to a lesser degree the all-star game. League sponsors loved it, saying it gave their products a national platform it doesn't otherwise get during regular games. That in itself should be enough to convince NHL owners the outdoor game should be a mainstay.
But there are risks. The weather must co-operate, which it did in Edmonton four years ago and again this week in Buffalo. Not just the weather on game day either, but also in the days leading up in the building of the rink.
TV ratings in the U.S. will also have an influence. Going up head-to-head against the Capital One Bowl between Florida and Michigan won't help. The league will weigh the pros and cons going forward.
Notes: There were also 11,500 fans at HSBC Arena in downtown Buffalo watching the game on the big screen ... The biggest crowd for a hockey game remains the 74,544 that turned out at Spartan Stadium for the 2001 Cold War between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, a game in which the Sabres' Miller and Pittsburgh's Adam Hall played ... Penguins part-owner Mario Lemieux was on hand ...: Before the game, the league announced several contingency plans in case weather affected the game. Period and game format would be reconfigured on the fly. If 40 minutes was played when weather forced a stop, the game would have been deemed official - much like seven innings in a rain-delayed baseball game. If fewer than 40 minutes were played when the game was stopped, the game would have been replayed in its entirety Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Ralph Wilson Stadium. If that game also couldn't played, the game would have been re-played at another date at HSBC Arena. Should the game have been tied after 40 minutes and stopped by weather, each team would have got a point in the standings with a penalty shootout deciding the other point. If weather didn't permit for the shootout either, the shootout would have been held Sunday, Feb. 17, prior to a Pens-Sabres game at HSBC Arena. ... If the rink looks similar than the one at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton four years ago, it's because the same boards and glass were used again.