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March 24, 2019
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
The game itself may not have been a classic, but the ending certainly was. Sidney Crosby scored the decisive shootout goal, lifting the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres in the New Year's Day Winter Classic.
The outdoor event at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium drew 71,217 fans, a number which will probably dwarf the television ratings for NBC. I just hope it gets a better rating than the program that followed it, "The Music of Seal on Ice." No joke. That's actually what NBC televised after the game. I believe it was a one-hour show, featuring five minutes of ice skating and 55 minutes of people wondering, "How the hell does this guy get to bang Heidi Klum?"
The few people who did tune in to the Winter Classic were treated to quite the spectacle. Seeing a soldout football stadium for a hockey game was impressive. While I'm sure national critics will wonder how the NHL got all its fans in one place at the same time, it was a testament to the popularity of a sport too often neglected in mainstream media. Yes, ESPN, hockey fans exist. It's not just a rumor.
"On breaks, I looked around and it was incredible," said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff. "We've got some of the greatest fans. I don't know if it would have been more than a few hundred people had left. When I looked around, there didn't seem to be an empty seat in the building which was incredible. It was a great day that I think everybody kind of enjoyed."
The NHL pulled out all the stops. The league got Enrico Palazzo to sing "God Bless America," some local weather helicopters did a fly-over, and they even launched a battery of bottle rockets. It was real classy.
And the weather was perfect. The concerns about potential sun glare proved completely unfounded, as a cloudy, overcast day brought nothing but snow and wind, and maybe a little sleet. Good times, good times.
Best of all, Pittsburgh and Buffalo busted out the vintage threads. The Birds dressed in their old baby blues. They were real swank. The Sabres were truly the Sabres, decked out in their glorious old white, blue, and gold sweaters with the buffalo and the crossed swords. Donald Trump's toupee was nowhere to be seen. It probably blew away.
With the snow swirling, Crosby didn't take long to make an impression on the national TV audience, setting up Colby Armstrong for the game's first goal just 21 seconds into the contest. Crosby swiped the puck from Tim Connolly in the neutral zone and swung wide on left wing, blowing around Brian Campbell with the greatest of ease. As Crosby cut sharply towards the cage, Ryan Miller managed to poke the puck, but Armstrong followed late for the easy finish. The goal was all Crosby. It was the kind of brilliant individual effort usually reserved for Rambo movies.
The Sabres got the equalizer at 1:25 of the second period. Connolly pulled up along the left wing boards and found Campbell all alone in the right circle. The Pens were caught in a bad line change, so Campbell had all day to settle the puck and wrist a shot over Ty Conklin's left shoulder.
Because of the weather, the overall game was rather disjointed. The second period probably had the most sustained action, with the Sabres controlling play, but the accumulating snow made passing and stickhandling sketchy at best. Dump and chase ruled the day, but once the puck got deep, the slushy conditions in the corners hindered any cycling. And whenever the game did get some flow, play was usually halted for ice repairs or emergency zamboni runs.
Buffalo outshot Pittsburgh 14-2 in the middle frame, but the third period was fairly even until the Sabres cranked it up late, generating their best offense in the final two minutes of regulation. Thomas Vanek nearly ended things with a wraparound. The sustained pressure drew a questionable hooking call to Armstrong just as time expired.
A 4-on-3 power play in overtime is usually automatic for the people, especially in this case when the Sabres got to enjoy a clean sheet of ice, which was the rarest of rare commodities. Buffalo sent out Connolly, Vanek, Ales Kotalik, and Jaroslav Spacek. They moved the puck fairly well, but the Pittsburgh penalty killers, led by Jordan Staal, Ryan Malone, and Rob Scuderi, did a good job keeping them to the outside. The Sabres seemed content working the puck to Kotalik at the left point for one-timers. Conklin handled everything with ease, and the Penguins managed to kill the penalty and survive the final three minutes of OT, despite surrendering quality chances to Jochen Hecht and Spacek.
Kotalik, who led the Sabres with six shots, including three in overtime, started the shootout by beating Conklin over the glove. He wasn't scared to toy with the puck, either, turning it over once or twice before piping his shot.
As per usual, Erik Christensen kicked things off for the Penguins, doing his trademark forehand maneuver. Gee, didn't see that coming. He waited a bit too long to do it and lost the puck in the corner.
Connolly was next and showed little interest in using his hands, electing instead to bury a wrister into Conklin's pads from outside the hashmarks.
Kris Letang went second for Pittsburgh, running his career shootout record to a perfect 4-for-4 by abusing Miller with a backhand move. Letang made it look ridiculously easy, coasting down the slot and momentarily losing the puck before pulling Miller to his knees and flipping home a backhander. Even Ike Turner thought it was excessive.
Maxim Afinogenov continued his season-long trend of not scoring, getting Conklin down and tossing a backhander into his glove. Fear Conklin.
That set the stage for Kid Crosby. The NHL couldn't have asked for more. With the game on the line, Sid skated directly at Miller, carrying the puck close enough to entice a pokecheck. When Miller reached with the stick, Crosby slipped a wrister between his pads for the winner.
"I like facing Sidney," said Miller. "I've seen a lot of him the last few years, so, you know, I really want to stop him obviously. But I thought I made a good play to stay with him. I didn't think he made quite the play he wanted to, but it worked out for him."
Sid jumped around like a chimp. More bottle rockets were fired. A grand time was had by all.
"I love the fact that the fans are standing up and chanting with all the music and getting really into it," said Miller. "It was a cool experience, because everybody was so into it and so dialed in to watching a hockey game. . . really it's kind of a party atmosphere, everyone in different sections interacting and laughing and having a good time. That's what we feel hockey is all about; celebrate the sport, come out and have some fun and watch, have a good time. I think that was accomplished."
Crosby had fun. Two points in the standings will do that.
"Yeah, it's a great feeling and always a great experience all in all," said Crosby. "You know, we've got some pretty decent weather. It wasn't too cold. I thought they did a pretty good job of trying to maintain the ice. And obviously when you win, it's a lot nicer."
Sidney Crosby: It was billed as the Winter Classic, but it really should have been called the Crosby Classic. It was a showcase for the game's best player, and he delivered the goods. He was electrifying each time he had the puck. Not only did he notch an assist and the shootout winner, Kid Crosby also busted out a spin-o-rama backhander and his mad circus skills.
When the puck wouldn't settle down for him during a first-period power play, Sid chipped it in the air and juggled it three times, using the trickery to split Spacek and Daniel Paille at the Sabre stripe and set up a scoring chance. It was real wizard. David Blaine's already trying to figure out a way to turn it into an annoying ABC special. But the move wasn't planned.
"No, just in a way it's sometimes easier to play the puck up there than having to drag it through a lot of snow," explained Crosby. "So you know, if you can do it, then why not? So it wasn't something I thought about. I just reacted and the puck was bouncing everywhere. I figured it might be a good way to advance the puck a bit and try to chase it down."
Ty Conklin (36 saves): It kind of sucked Dany Sabourin didn't get a chance to play, because his new pads are wicked cool. They're all brown and whatnot. But if Conklin keeps playing like he is, Sabourin may never see the crease again. Conklin is now 5-0-0 with the Penguins, stopping 62 of 63 shots in sweeping a home-and-home with the Sabres. He was at his best in overtime, turning aside seven shots in the extra session, including three Kotalik drives and another blast from Jason Pominville.
"A lot of times your goalie has to be your biggest penalty killer and get the stops that he did and to get the puck the way he did, that's underrated," said Crosby. "He's done an amazing job since he's come in there, and we certainly feel confident with him back there."
Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien also had kind words for Conklin, although few of the words ended in s or d.
"He's playing very well and we've had success," said Therrien. "We were pretty discourage when we lost Fleury, our No. 1 guy, and especially his last four or five games he was playing pretty solid after a tough start, and we all know if you don't have goaltenders and the goaltender doesn't play well, it's tough to win in this league.
"Certainly he's playing at a level that gives us a chance to win, and he makes some key saves at the right time during the game. He made some key saves in overtime where we have to kill the penalty, so he's a big part of it."
Rob Scuderi: He never gets any credit, but Scuderi has been a steady performer all season. Sure, he has less offensive talent than the Baltimore Ravens, but he's become a reliable defensive defensemen. He played 23:17 on the afternoon, saving his best work for the OT kill.
Kris Letang: His shootout goal was ridiculous. Expect to see Miller's jock on milk cartons tomorrow.
Ryan Miller (24 saves): Miller was solid. He was also stylish, sporting a tuque all game. He actually wore three, one for each period. The hats will be auctioned off, with all proceeds going to find a cure for Letang.
Brian Campbell: Crosby torched him on the first shift, but Campbell rallied like a champ. He was darn near spectacular the rest of the game, collecting Buffalo's lone goal and dishing out three big hits, including a collision with Ryan Malone in the corner that nearly sent Campbell into orbit.
Paul Gaustad: Gaustad was a one-man wrecking crew, ringing up a game-high 10 hits. He also checked Crosby's line much of the game.
Mike Milbury was decent. It's always nice seeing the video of him beating someone with a shoe. It was the second-worst beating he administered during his career, behind only his complete and utter destruction of the New York Islanders franchise. It was a little odd, though, when he tried trading Bob Costas for Alexei Yashin during the second intermission.
Speaking of Costas, he seemed to have a pretty good chemistry with Milbury. I can't wait to see their upcoming ventriloquist act. I hear Milbury drinks a glass of water while Costas sings his own praises.
"You know, for me growing up, I played a lot outside and a lot of their guys did, too, and when you see 70,000 people jammed into a stadium to watch hockey it's a good sign," said Crosby. "The atmosphere and environment, I don't think you can beat that. I think it's something to look back and say we had a lot of great memories being a part of it."