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Winter Classic keeps getting better

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BOSTON – It can't possibly get better than this, can it?

The Winter Classic has blossomed into the NHL's showcase event, the league's best way to not only take the game back to its roots but also take it to the curious quasi-fan, the spectator who flips around the dial looking for something to hold his or her interest.

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Marco Sturm celebrates after scoring game-winner in overtime.
(Dave Sandford/Getty)

Dare we say, is this a way for the NHL to grow its game, which is a lot better coming out of the lockout of 2004-05 than the product leading up to that unprecedented yearlong work stoppage? Maybe that's assuming too much, but something special is going on with the simple idea of playing in the great outdoors.

They've played three straight of these games on New Year's Day, and each one has been better. When Marco Sturm's(notes) redirected goal touched the back of the net 1:57 into overtime, the home team finally figured out how to win one of these, too: Boston Bruins 2, Philadelphia Flyers 1.

Two years ago, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., the wind was stiff and the ice was bad. The visiting Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres in a shootout, but the challenging playing conditions ground the game to a halt after the first few minutes of every period. Last year at Chicago's venerable Wrigley Field, the weather was perfect and more goals were scored – 10 in all, with the visiting Detroit Red Wings winning 6-4 over the Chicago Blackhawks.

That was a good game and a huge improvement. But it didn't have everything that was on display at the only older Major League Baseball park. It will soon be forgotten how the forecast of heavy rain had NHL officials quietly shaking in their boots. The game-time temperature was 39.6 degrees, the ice surface was a perfect 24 degrees, partially cloudy skies were overhead and there was hardly a breath of wind at Fenway.

"Fenway Park. Bruins. Flyers. 40,000 fans on a perfect day. You couldn't ask for anything better for the game of hockey," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "It was just an unbelievable experience to be a part of it – for our organization, for our players, for the fans.

"It was a great day for hockey."

And those were the comments of the losing coach.

You wanted an outdoor fight? Daniel Carcillo(notes) of the Flyers and Shawn Thornton(notes) of the Bruins obliged 12:01 into the contest. Carcillo even dropped his opponent with a big right and showboated with raised arms once escorted to the cold penalty box, certainly making NBC executives cringe somewhere. Tough.

You wanted a game that actually resembled the product indoors? While there will be grumbling that it wasn't the most thrill-filled contest for the opening 55 minutes, the game was close to indoor speed because the weather cooperated and the players got into the spirit of it. There was hitting, forechecking, long-pass attempts, penalties and late goals.

"It's definitely something I'll never forget," Mark Recchi(notes) said.

It became even more memorable for the 41-year-old Recchi, the leading active scorer in the league with 552 goals and 1,464 points before Friday, because none had come outdoors. He put a stick on a Derek Morris(notes) drive to beat Flyers goalie Michael Leighton(notes) at 17:42 of the third period, and the resulting power-play goal brought the hosts and the crowd at Fenway Park to life.

Until then, the only goal of the game was the first of Danny Syvret's(notes) career, a screened shot 4:42 into the second period when Bruins goalie Tim Thomas(notes) decided cross-checking Scott Hartnell(notes) was a priority instead of tracking the puck.

"It was incredible. As soon as I saw Derek get it I just wanted to get in position," Recchi said. "All that energy in the building, being at Fenway … it was a pretty special feeling, that's for sure."

"You could feel the energy when we tied it up," Thomas added. "When Marco scored the winner, that was one of the most incredible feelings I've had."

Sturm and Patrice Bergeron(notes) – Olympic-bound for Germany and Canada, respectively – were able to execute in overtime what barely failed earlier in the game – Bergeron slipped Philly captain Mike Richards(notes) and zipped a pass that Sturm could deflect. A similar effort never reached Sturm from Bergeron's stick early in the third period, when the hosts were still down a goal.

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Sold-out Fenway Park was treated to a fan-tastic afternoon.
(Getty)

"That's something I dreamed of this morning, everybody did," Sturm said of scoring the winning goal. "It's one of those memories for right now [that's] on top of my list."

The goal is another feather in Sturm's hat. He's the only player remaining from the ill-fated three-for-one deal that saw ex-Bruin Joe Thornton(notes) move from Beantown to San Jose in exchange for Brad Stuart(notes), Wayne Primeau(notes) and Sturm. The Sharks took off after the deal, while the Bruins had to go through front-office changes to get back on track.

Sturm, the team's leading goal scorer with 14, wasn't sure even sure he was ready for all the excitement that was in store.

"That first shift, I almost missed it because I was looking around so much," Sturm said. "Just skating yesterday with the whole family, it was so incredible."

And just when you thought it was over, there was more. Immediately after the Bruins and Flyers made their way off the ice, the surface was used to announce the U.S. Olympic team, cleverly handled by having youth hockey players turn around to display the name of the American player selected.

The routine continued until it was time to name the 23rd and final roster member, and the last of three goaltenders. Out emerged Thomas from the Boston Red Sox dugout on the first-base line. He was wearing a Team USA sweater, and a pretty big smile.

"This will go down as one of my most memorable days of my life and my career," Thomas said. "I feel like I've been waiting my whole life for this. To get named at your home – Fenway Park – is incredible."

There were many who left Fenway Park on Friday feeling exactly the same way.

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