PHILADELPHIA – There were 19.6 seconds left. The sky was dark and the lights were bright, beaming down on center ice where the puck waited for Philadelphia Flyers center Danny Briere with the game on the line.
"Maybe," said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with a smile, "that's the only reason why he called it."
OK, not really. No conspiracy theories, please, no matter what Rangers coach John Tortorella blabbers about NBC and the officials working together. But the stage was set, and this was a drama every fan could understand – from the hardcore hockey people the league wants to please to the casual sports fans it wants to capture.
With the city skyline in the distance, the 46,967 fans rose to their feet at Citizens Bank Park, normally the home of baseball's Philadelphia Phillies. The Rangers held a one-goal lead. If Briere scored, we'd have overtime. If Lundqvist stopped him, New York would win.
Briere picked up the puck at about second base and skated into shallow left field. Briere slowed, spying Lundqvist's five-hole. Lundqvist stayed patient, not wanting to make the first move. There was a Flyers roar …
And then the tone switched.
There was a Rangers roar now as Briere shot, Lundqvist squeezed his pads and the puck stayed out. Lundqvist pumped his fists. The Rangers held on for a 3-2 victory – their third win in a row over the Flyers this season – keeping their division rivals from tying them atop the Eastern Conference.
"It would have been tough to swallow that one if they'd scored," Lundqvist said.
But they didn't score, and it was savory.
"It leaves a better taste in your mouth," said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi took a bite out of a Philly cheesesteak in the dressing room. He smiled.
"It's delicious," he said.
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The success of the Winter Classic isn't judged on just the game. It is judged on the spectacle and the storylines. And this one was a winner, even in the eyes of the losers. As he walked below the stands shortly after the final horn, Flyers legend Bobby Clarke – known for his fire and candor, even now as the team's senior vice-president – sounded philosophical.
"Great hockey game to watch," Clarke said, half-smiling, half-frowning. "What can you do?"
It didn't look good for a while. It was scoreless into the second period, and Flyers fans were frustrated because their team had carried the play and had nothing to show for it. Some shouted: "Shoot the puck!"
But then came a flurry of goals – three in a span of 2:25, the first two for the Flyers, the next one for the Rangers – and then came snow flurries. Suddenly, the Winter Classic was everything it was billed to be. The game was a tight affair between two rivals. The spectacle was complete, snow swirling in the sky, illuminated by the stadium lights, above thousands of cheering fans in hockey sweaters and toques.
The conditions were good. The NHL pushed faceoff from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., keeping the rink out of the sun, and that meant the game started in daylight and ended in darkness. The game-time temperature was 41.1 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind was so little of a factor that the teams didn't feel the need to switch ends midway through the third period.
The ice? Well, there were a few delays for patch jobs. It looked like someone had gone ice fishing in shallow left-center, leaving behind a hole that needed frequent attention. But it was good enough that there were some pretty passing plays, and Rangers center Brad Richards said it was "way better than expected."
Year after year, the players say the same thing. They come out for warm-ups and are blown away – the feel of the outdoors, the roar of the crowd, the emotion of the anthems, the scream of the flyover. Oh, and then they have to play.
"During warm-ups, there was a little bit of like, 'Wow,' " said Rangers center Brian Boyle. "When the fighter jets flew overhead, that was pretty amazing. Then it was game time, and they were flying at us with their skilled forwards, and we had to realize we were still playing for two points here, a big divisional game."
So many storylines emerged.
There was Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who came back from a concussion and played for the first time this season.
There was Jaromir Jagr, who looked more 29 years old than 39 years old late in the first period, splitting the New York defense and streaking in on Lundqvist – only to be stopped and aggravate a leg injury. He left the game later, but he stayed on the bench to soak up the scene.
There was Flyers youngster Brayden Schenn, a highly regarded but oft-injured 20-year-old, who opened the scoring with his first NHL goal 12:26 into the second period. There was Flyers center Claude Giroux, a rising star and the league's second-leading scorer, who made it 2-0 with a beautiful backhand top-shelf at 14:21.
There was Rangers enforcer Mike Rupp, of all people, who responded just 30 seconds later and celebrated with Jagr's patented salute. He also tied it 2:41 into the third period. After scoring only once all season, he had scored twice. This, after Rupp – who played in last year's Winter Classic for the Pittsburgh Penguins – had told the Rangers how important it was to take an early lead because coming back would be more difficult than usual in outdoor conditions.
"At least he made up for the speech by getting us back in the game," Richards said.
There was the Flyers goaltending. (There is always the Flyers goaltending.) Coach Peter Laviolette elected to bench Ilya Bryzgalov, the guy the Flyers signed to a nine-year, $51 million deal in the off-season, because Bryzgalov was playing poorly and Sergei Bobrovsky was playing well. ‘Bob’ would like to have had Rupp's second goal back – a bad-angle shot that leaked into the net. He didn't look good on the eventual winner, either, holding his ground in close but leaving a juicy rebound. Richards fired it off the back iron 5:21 into the third.
Finally, there was the officiating. What is an NHL game without controversy? Callahan and Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen went off with 1:06 to go – Callahan for holding the stick. He must have held it with his neck or his face while Timonen interfered with him. Bad call.
That made it a 4-on-4 situation, and that made it a 5-on-4 situation when the Flyers pulled their goaltender – more open ice for the Flyers to use their skill to tie it. There was a flurry in front. Lundqvist stretched out his right pad to stone Briere. The puck slipped behind him, scooted toward the goal line and …
McDonagh dove on top of it.
"To be honest, I didn't think I covered it, but the ref's probably going to go with what he sees for a second there," McDonagh said. "The puck's going in if I don't come across there and swipe it out of there. It's a goal, anyway."
It wasn't a goal in the end, thanks to Lundqvist. The gamble paid off.
* * * * *
The gamble paid off again for the NHL. You never know what you're going to get when you build an ice rink in a baseball or football stadium. There could be a heat wave. There could be a downpour. The game could be a downer. The face of your league could be concussed (sigh).
But the league has gone 5-for-5 – or 4-for-5, at worst. The first Winter Classic was a snow-globe scene that ended with a Sidney Crosby shootout winner. The second saw 10 goals between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field. The third was an overtime game won by the Boston Bruins at Fenway Park. The fourth will be remembered for the hit to Crosby's head and the light rain that fell, but no one knew that night what was to come for Crosby, and despite the weather, on went the show. The fifth was a competitive game in good conditions that ended with a dramatic penalty shot and even a scuffle between rivals at the final horn.
And that is why we look forward to the sixth – almost certainly in the Detroit area, either at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor or downtown at Comerica Park – not to mention the seventh and the eighth and so on. The Winter Classic is worth much more than two points.
Richards was asked what he would remember.
"Just the enormity of it," he said. "The little bit of snowfall. The wind in the face. All that stuff of just being outside, it was amazing – an amazing feeling."
It's amazing how a little snow and wind and wonder can make an enormity of a regular-season game.