ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Big House was a sea of blue and red. Snow fell throughout the afternoon. There were coaches in fedoras, goalies wearing retro-looking pads and toques, and kids playing shinny on a small rink that could have been mistaken for a pond.
The images of the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Wednesday were as intoxicating as the conditions were frigid. The temperature was 13 degrees Fahrenheit at the start of the game. The wind chill sent it below zero as the game progressed. The announced crowd of 105,491 teeth-chattering fans jammed into the 96 rows of bleacher seats at Michigan Stadium took it all in; their senses no doubt overwhelmed.
"It was a home run for hockey," said Detroit coach Mike Babcock.
Roughly half of the fans crossed the border into Canada happy after the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout to win what, at the end of the day, was a regular-season game between Atlantic Division rivals who entered the afternoon with 45 points each through 41 games.
Tyler Bozak scored the shootout winner with a low, stick-side shot in the bottom half of the third round after Tomas Tatar lost the puck while trying to stick handle through the snow and failed to score in the first half of the round. Pavel Datsyuk and Joffrey Lupul traded goals in the second round after Daniel Alfredsson and James van Riemsdyk couldn't score in the first round.
"It's another game that we want to get points on the board, but it's different because we're going to remember this for the rest of our lives," Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner said. "People will ask, 'Did you ever play in an outdoor game?' We can say, 'Yeah.' They'll say, 'Did you win?' We can say, 'Yes, we won 3-2 in a shootout.' It's great to be able to say that and just to be a part of this whole thing."
Even the Red Wings, who fell into fifth place in the Atlantic Division, one point behind the Maple Leafs, were praising the day and smiling after the game.
Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said he thought the experience was better than the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, where the Red Wings beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 6-4.
Brendan Smith used the words "amazing," "exciting" and "unbelievable" when describing the Winter Classic.
"It was the best experience I probably ever had playing hockey," said Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader, whose fifth goal of the season tied the game at 2-2 with 5:32 left in regulation. "It was awesome. It brings you back to your childhood days when you're out on the pond or playing in the backyard. It was a lot of fun."
The snow and wind made the conditions difficult for the goaltenders, but they didn't seem deterred at all.
Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier made a NHL outdoor-game record 41 saves, including 39 through regulation, to earn first-star honors in his fourth straight start. Bernier had never started four straight games in his career before his current stretch.
Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard wasn't as busy, but still had to make 24 saves, 22 in regulation.
"Definitely it was something really special," Bernier said. "As hockey players we're never going to forget that. Having 105,000 people screaming and yelling for us is really amazing."
Bozak brought the Big House down with his shootout winner. He had just watched Tatar lose the puck as he tried to make some moves to get Bernier moving, so Bozak decided he simply just had to go down with speed and shoot the puck.
"Tyler is a player that our coaching staff trusts, pretty simple," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. "And when coaches trust people, they put them in situations where you believe the player will get the job done."
Bozak also got the job done early in the third period, when he scored his fifth goal of the season to give the Maple Leafs a 2-1 lead. He got his stick up, but just low enough to make it legal, and deflected captain Dion Phaneuf's shot from the left point down and past Howard.
The play was reviewed because the officials had to determine if Bozak deflected the puck with a high stick, but the call on the ice was confirmed.
The Maple Leafs tied the game on van Riemsdyk's 15th goal of the season with 36.5 seconds left in the second period. He batted the puck out of the air and into the net from the right side.
"We knew going in there weren't going to be too many pretty goals, the ice got pretty snowy pretty fast," Bozak said. "They did a good job keeping it clean, though. JVR made a great play on his and I was lucky enough to get a stick on it to keep it low enough."
The roar in Michigan Stadium was unlike anything Alfredsson had ever heard when he scored to give the Red Wings a 1-0 lead at the 13:14 mark of the second period. He converted on a 2-on-1 with Henrik Zetterberg against Gardiner, whose defense partner, Cody Franson, was caught pinching in too deep in the offensive zone, creating the odd-man rush.
"In the playoffs it's very loud and it's intense, but you add another 85,000 people it brings another dimension," Alfredsson said. "It was really cool and something I'll always remember."
The Michigan faithful were heard again when Abdelkader, one of their own, a Muskegon native and Red Wings forward, scored to tie the game late in the third period.
Abdelkader started the play on the left-wing half-wall by moving the puck deep. Maple Leafs defenseman Paul Ranger got the puck, but didn't rim it hard enough around the wall and Smith was able to beat van Riemsdyk to it on the right-wing half-wall. Abdelkader went to the net, got inside position on Franson and used his backhand to deflect the puck past Bernier.
"We talked about getting pucks to the net and making simple plays because with the snow on the ice it wasn't easy," Abdelkader said. "I knew he was going to try to get it to the front there, so I had to get position and get my stick on it."
But the fans in blue chanting "Go Leafs Go" were standing at the end of a frigid, snowy, unforgettable afternoon at the Big House.
Bozak and Bernier brought them to their feet. The Winter Classic experience sent them home with memories that should last forever.
"It's a regular-season game, but you're playing outside in front of 105,000 people," Phaneuf said. "It's just an unbelievable experience as a player and one I'll never forget, but it makes it that much more special when you win it."
|Daniel Alfredsson (11) ASST: Henrik Zetterberg (22), Gustav Nyquist (5)|
1 - 0 DET
|James van Riemsdyk (15) ASST: Phil Kessel (18), Dion Phaneuf (12)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Tyler Bozak (5) ASST: Dion Phaneuf (13)|
2 - 1 TOR
|Justin Abdelkader (5) ASST: Brendan Smith (7)|
2 - 2 Tie
|1||D. Alfredsson||J. van Riemsdyk|
|2||P. Datsyuk||J. Lupul|
|3||T. Tatar||T. Bozak|
|Justin Abdelkader Cross checking against Dion Phaneuf|
|Joffrey Lupul Cross checking against Patrick Eaves|
|Dion Phaneuf Holding against Justin Abdelkader|
|Jay McClement Hi-sticking against Henrik Zetterberg|
|Jakub Kindl Closing hand on puck|
|James van Riemsdyk Hooking against Danny DeKeyser|