PHILADELPHIA — It felt almost like October – almost like April, even. The sun was shining. The fans were tailgating. The building buzzed as the bowl filled with orange and the air filled with chants, long before Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux took the opening faceoff and the Pittsburgh Penguins faced the Philadelphia Flyers.
"Let's go, Flyers!"
"It felt almost like a playoff atmosphere," Penguins veteran Craig Adams said.
It felt, well, normal.
There was no hint that a four-month lockout had alienated the fans. The Flyers drew 19,994, the largest regular-season crowd in their history. The players were not booed, except for, of course, the Penguins. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was not ridiculed. Not one "Fire Bettman!" In Philly.
Only problem was, the Penguins' 3-1 victory didn't look normal. Saturday's opener didn't look like a playoff opener or even a regular-season opener. It looked like what it was – the first game between two teams that haven't played in about eight months – and the buzz fizzled into silence.
Giroux did dance around a defender on the left wing at one point, but the second-best moves of the game were on the video boards during a TV timeout, when a fat guy jiggled gloriously to ‘Gangnam Style.’ That riveting 314-penalty-minute, 56-goal, six-game, Pens-Flyers playoffs series was a long, long time ago.
"We knew we weren't going to come in here and, like it's Game 6 of the playoffs, the timing's going to be there and we're going to be working the puck around, making great passes," Penguins winger James Neal said. "We knew we'd be scrambling. We knew we were still trying to get our game legs under us. It's been a while since we've played."
The NHL's post-lockout slogan says "Hockey is back." But obviously hockey never left – only the NHL did – and obviously it's going to take at least a couple of weeks before actual, legitimate NHL hockey is back, too.
As the Penguins and Flyers were trying to find their legs, the reigning champion Los Angeles Kings fell behind the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-0, and lost, 5-2. It wasn't because their arms were tired from taking another victory lap with the Stanley Cup or because the hockey gods were sick of being disrespected. (We think.)
The pattern continued the rest of the day around the league, and just wait until some of these same teams play again Sunday. The Flyers hit the road to play at Buffalo in less than 24 hours.
One veteran scout said he would draw no conclusions from these early games. They aren't even like preseason games, because the players aren't all starting from the same point. Some have been playing in other leagues; most have not been. Some are in shape and sharp; others are not. They have had only six days of training camp together. That's it.
During the first intermission, the Flyers played the Bruno Mars song: ‘Locked Out of Heaven.’ “’Cause you make me feel like, I've been locked out of heaven, for too long …" It seemed fitting. But that song pines for Halle Berry, and this game passed for Wilkes-Barre. It was not heavenly hockey. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma called it "a little haphazard."
"I don't know if you want to chalk it up to not playing for eight months or whatever," Flyers winger Scott Hartnell said, "but we didn't have any legs that first period."
"I'm not going to lie," Giroux said. "The first period was kind of ugly."
Though the Flyers felt they played better in the second and the third, the game slowed. This had all the frustrating pace and dysfunction of a collective-bargaining session, but none of the animus. When Penguins and Flyers gathered in the corners, it seemed more like an NHL Players' Association caucus than a battle of bitter rivals.
"It wasn't pretty," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said.
Remember the playoffs, when the Flyers seemed to score on every power play? They went 0-for-5 Saturday. They shot themselves in the foot – literally. Center Brayden Schenn came off the half wall with space and time, saw a wide-open teammate and put a pass straight into his skates. That kind of stuff happened all game, on both sides.
"There were a lot of instances out there for a lot of people where the game was going a little bit faster than their brains were," Bylsma said. "Sometimes they got surprised by the speed."
Remember when these teams couldn't hit each other enough? Remember when there were scraps all over the place? It isn't just skilled play that takes time to return. You can't simulate physical play in practice.
"The battle conditioning, it's a lot different," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Having guys lean on you, having guys hit you, it takes a lot out of you, and you're not used to that."
The coaches know all this. And while they will do whatever they can to find an edge, because these games count just as much as when everyone eventually finds his legs, they generally will have to roll their lines and let the boys play through it.
They have to simplify things. Forget tic-tac-toe plays. Forget cross-ice passes. Keep it simple, put the puck in deep and hope the goalie cleans up the slop. At least Marc-Andre Fleury was better than he was in the playoffs last year, making 26 saves and earning his 227th career victory, most in Penguins history.
[Puck Daddy: 2013 Stanley Cup predictions]
"When you go into a Winter Classic game and the ice isn't going to be great and it's raining out, you have to adjust your mentality and focus," said Bylsma, who faced those conditions when the Penguins played outdoors on New Year's Day 2011. "I think that's a little bit of what you have to do with your expectations you have for your execution level. You have to expect it's not going to be great. If you force things and get frustrated, it allows the other teams to maybe take advantage of that."
So, yeah. Lower your expectations for a while. Don't get frustrated. And take comfort in this: You know what 50/50 referred to Saturday? Not hockey-related revenue. The raffle.
At least we're critiquing the hockey now.
"It's good to talk about something else besides the lockout," Giroux said, "and actually talk about the game."