More than 73,000 flock to outdoor game
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Sidney Crosby can expect chilly receptions every time he returns to Buffalo.
Some snow, a shootout and Sid the Kid's winning goal added up to a perfect hockey day outside that will forever be frozen in time.
The Penguins captain somehow saw space between Ryan Miller's pads as he shuffled through driving snow and gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres at the outdoor Winter Classic in front of an NHL-record 71,217 fans on Tuesday.
"Growing up, I played a lot outside," said Crosby, a Nova Scotia native. "When you see 70,000 people jammed into a stadium to watch hockey, it's a good sign. The atmosphere and environment, I don't think you can beat that."
In elements more suited for football than hockey, Crosby won the NHL's second outdoor game — and first in the United States — in the most dramatic fashion at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home to the Buffalo Bills.
Crosby skated down the middle, eluded a pokecheck by Miller and put a shot between the goalie's pads in the final round.
"I like facing Sidney. I really want to stop him, obviously," Miller said. "I thought I made a good play to stay with him. I didn't think he made quite the play he wanted, but it worked out for him."
It gave the Penguins a sweep of the home-and-home series with the Sabres that started with Pittsburgh's 2-0 win on Saturday. The Penguins have won four straight, while Buffalo fell to 0-2-2 in that span.
"I'd love to do it again. I thought it was awesome," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "It was good for the game. 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.
"The hell with the cynics."
Ty Conklin allowed Ales Kotalik's goal to open the tiebreaker before stopping Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov.
Kris Letang also scored for the Penguins, pushing his shootout record to 4-for-4 with a shifty, multi-move rush through accumulating snow that finished with a high shot.
Colby Armstrong gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead just 21 seconds after the opening faceoff, and Brian Campbell tied it 1:25 into the second.
Despite both teams dressed in retro-style jerseys, this game was decided by the most modern of methods. Surprisingly, Zambonis didn't clean the ice as they would for a regular NHL shootout even after they made appearances midway through all three regulation periods.
Given the choice of goals to defend, Miller and Conklin picked the west end to avoid the heavy snow that swirled and poured in toward the right.
Blowing winds and dropping temperatures worked against everyone inside the vast stadium that easily housed the hockey rink between the 16-yard lines. No one seemed to mind the typical January weather in western New York.
With the success of this event, the NHL already is eager to host more, perhaps even on an annual basis. New Year's Day traditionally belonged to college football, but there might be room now for the "Ice Bowl."
"Based on the response, on our ability to execute, and the inquiries we're getting from other clubs for similar activities, this obviously is something we're going to look at again," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The record crowd that topped the NHL's other outdoor game in Edmonton four years earlier, dotted the stadium with flashing cameras for each shootout attempt through lake-effect snow.
When Crosby saw the puck cross the goal line, he spun toward the jubilant Penguins bench and jumped with his hands raised.
Fans in the lower bowl stood throughout to get a better view as they looked out over the height of the rink's boards and the television broadcast platforms behind the penalty boxes.
One enthusiastic patron held a poster that read, "Look Mom, no roof."
That was most clear in the final 5 minutes of regulation when snow fell at its heaviest clip and continued through the finish.
Miller and Conklin both had limited experience playing outside, but neither owned a victory. Miller earned a 3-3 tie for Michigan State against Michigan in the 2001 "Cold War" game in front of 74,554 fans.
Conklin took the loss in host Edmonton's 4-3 defeat to Montreal on Nov. 22, 2003, with 57,167 in attendance.
Miller donned a cap, fashioned out of a hockey sock, on top of his mask. Conklin went with an uncovered mask featuring snowflakes.
Sabres forward Thomas Vanek was the last to wear the full head sleeve that stretched over his mouth in warmups but was pulled down to his chin by the third period. Penguins defenseman Darryl Sydor shed his visor.
When the scheduled buzzer sounded to divide the third period in half, it didn't stop a rush. The Penguins peeled back and essentially took a knee where Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly did many times in the glory days of the Bills, letting the final seconds tick off before the teams switched sides at the 10-minute mark.
The final mid-period Zamboni run took longer than the others as the second cleaning machine was blocked in the tunnel by a chunk of ice. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped and the players skated and stretched to try to keep warm.
Momentum changed with the weather that featured snow through the first 10 minutes, benign cloud cover through the opening intermission and a wintery mix during the second. The stadium lights took effect as the sky darkened and provided a unique brightness.
As though they were trudging from home to the frozen pond, each team plodded down mats from the tunnel to the ice — stopping first to peel off their skate guards. Moms weren't there to call these grown kids back inside, and Bettman didn't do it, either.
The only thing that got in their way was a buildup of snow that held up the movement of pucks and skates.
Armstrong provided lightning with his quick goal, with help from the snow. The puck came to a stop in the neutral zone near center ice, and Crosby carried it into the Sabres end.
He got off a shot that Miller stopped, before the snow put another hold on the puck in front. It sat there for Armstrong to punch in his sixth goal and Pittsburgh's quickest of the season.
Three trouble spots cropped up along the wall in front of the players' benches, two in the zone Buffalo defended in the first period. Before the Penguins' third power play of the frame, with 7:43 remaining, the ice crew did patch work that caused a delay for several minutes.