ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – They pulled it off.
For once the NHL, maligned, ridiculed and demeaned so often for trying to skate outside the box, took a big swing Tuesday and made solid contact. Hit it right out of the park, in fact. Yellowstone Park.
Just think of all the ways this could have backfired. An outdoor game in Buffalo, in the dead of winter, in front of a national television audience on a day most Americans are glued to watching college football when they aren't nursing a holiday hangover.
Instead, it's the NHL that is drunk with success.
The game's biggest young star – Sidney Crosby – topped an afternoon that brought everyone back to their roots with a Hollywood-scripted shootout goal to give the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins a 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres in front of 71,217 fans.
The week-old man-made rink, stretching between the 16-yard lines and built atop the football field of Ralph Wilson Stadium, served as the spectacular venue for the first NHL regular-season outdoor game in the United States. Snow fell nearly throughout, wind was tough at times, it was dark and cold, but none of that mattered. It all seemed just right for what the league was trying to promote.
"It was very good for the game," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "It really brings you back to the roots, and I know that there's a lot more involved than just playing an outdoor game.
"It may not be the best hockey game because of the situation – the weather, the snow – but the atmosphere was incredible. It was incredible."
The game was different, and major adjustments had to be made because of the elements and circumstance. The light snow grew hard toward the end of regulation. The wind was blowing very hard by overtime and during the shootout. The wind chill dropped from the mid-30s into the low 20s and high teens.
Because snow would just stick to the top of the ice and freeze instead of blowing to the boards, the players learned quickly that stickhandling, stretch passes and one-time shots weren't going to work. There were only two icing calls in the entire game, the first 2:01 into the second period and not another until midway through overtime.
Two Zambonis scraped the ice at least every 10 minutes. In other words, they operated not only after each 20-minute period, but at mid-period, too. One Zamboni was out of commission for a point during the second half of the game because it froze up. Parking the Zambonis deep under the stadium in warmer climes was the trick.
And we saw NHL ice guru Dan Craig about as much as Crosby. The mastermind behind the ice making had to tend to one trouble spot throughout the game – a reoccurring divot above one of the faceoff circles that stubbornly would not cooperate.
All in all, no one was complaining in the end.
"I thought the NHL did a great job with the ice," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "There were times it was pretty tough, but they took care of it right away."
"When you see not a fan left throughout the whole game, that's pretty remarkable and something the league sees," Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell said.
"I'm obviously disappointed with the shootout, but overall I thought it was a great experience," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. "It's kind of a party atmosphere, everyone in different sections interacting, laughing, singing, swaying and having a good time. That's what we feel hockey is all about – celebrate the sport, come out and have a good time. I think that was accomplished."
Putting Crosby on a national stage was accomplished, too. And that's another thing the league hoped would happen.
The 20-year-old defending league scoring champ and MVP was front-and-center for Pittsburgh's two most critical plays. The only goal the Penguins scored in regulation came just 21 seconds after the opening faceoff, barely giving fans a chance to settle into their football seats after a lavish opening ceremony.
The only player seemingly not struggling to carry the puck, Crosby cut hard through the snow from the left faceoff circle to the front of the net where the puck popped free for linemate Colby Armstrong to deposit behind Miller.
The Sabres, who killed three first-period power plays to stay close, tied it 85 seconds into the middle period when Campbell teed up a pass Tim Connolly could not have made at any other time than on fresh ice and beat Pittsburgh goalie Ty Conklin, who made 36 saves.
That's how it stayed as the conditions deteriorated throughout the second half. A shootout seemed inevitable.
"All game long we would try to remind the players to keep it really simple," Therrien said.
In the shootout, teams had the option of which goal to defend and both chose the one with the strong wind to their back. Buffalo jumped out when Ales Kotalik scored on Conklin and Miller denied Erik Christensen.
But when Penguins rookie defenseman Kristopher Letang sandwiched a backhand goal past Miller between Conklin stops on Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov, it set the stage for Crosby vs. Miller.
Crosby moved carefully and cautiously from the red line into the slot, wary of not overskating the puck as he pushed it through the snow, and somehow managed to poke a shot in very close through Miller's 5-hole.
"My worry was just getting the puck to that area and once I got there, I just wanted to react," Crosby said.
"I like facing Sidney," Miller said. "I've seen a lot of him the last few years so, you know, I really want to stop him, obviously. I thought I made a good play to stay with him. I don't think he made quite the play he wanted, but it worked out for him."
And all this worked out for the NHL, too, for once.