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A great day for hockey

Tuesday, 01.01.2008 / 7:05 PM / 2008 NHL Winter Classic

By Dan Rosen - Senior Writer

"As soon as we came out of the room you could see the people hanging over the walkway. It sends shivers up your spine."
-- Pittsburgh right wing Colby Armstrong

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The record-breaking crowd was roaring an hour before the game.

Doug Allen and Ronan Tynan offered sterling renditions of O Canada and God Bless America, respectively, working the 71,217 fans inside Ralph Wilson Stadium into even more of a tizzy than they had been when the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins walked out of the tunnel through a cloud of smoke between torches shooting fire toward the sky.

As if the hockey gods were hovering above the Buffalo region, the snow let up just enough before the first faceoff, creating an authentic and lasting image of old-time hockey at the drop of the first puck.

And, to cap it off, the NHL got its Hollywood finish: Sidney Crosby pumping his fists and celebrating his game-winning, shootout goal, the one sent to the Penguins to a 2-1 victory, giving them the all-important two points up for grabs.

Winter. Snow. Patriotism. Hockey. Sidney Crosby.

Perfect. Simply perfect.

Minus the extra ice cuts necessary to make the playing conditions suitable, the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic lived up to the hype. It had it all, and the players were thrilled and honored to be the stars of the show.

"When you see 70,000 people jammed into a stadium to watch hockey it's a good sign," Crosby said. "The atmosphere and environment, I don't think you can beat that. It's something to look back on and say we had a lot of great memories being a part of it."

The memories will last forever because this wasn't a game. It was an event, one Buffalonians treated as if were the Super Bowl of hockey.

They ate up the hype for four months since the NHL announced the event on Sept. 17 – a sunny and hot day at Ralph Wilson Stadium – and washed it down with a good 'ol fashion hockey game, played where it was meant to be played.

"It was loud. It was fun. I'd do it again anytime," Buffalo right wing Jason Pominville said. "I don't think the NHL could have asked for a better scenario. NBC covered the game. It was a tight, shootout game. It was snowing. Besides the delays, I think everything was set up perfectly.

"Everything around this was great besides us losing the game."

The traffic built on Milestrip Road, the highway that runs parallel to Ralph Wilson Stadium, more than three hours prior to faceoff. Tailgaters lined Abbott Road, the main drag leading to the stadium parking lots, and fans held signs reading "Need tickets."

Nobody appeared to be selling.

"All in all, I don't think you can call it anything, but a huge success," said Pittsburgh goalie Ty Conklin, who stopped 36 of 37 shots for his fifth win in as many starts in a Penguins uniform.

The crowd began filling up the stadium immediately after the gates opened at 11 a.m. By the time the players took the ice for pre-game warmups -- when they were escorted by a band of bag pipers -- the stadium was close to capacity.

And it was loud.

"As soon as we came out of the room you could see the people hanging over the walkway," Pittsburgh right wing Colby Armstrong said. "It sends shivers up your spine."

The snow got heavy in the time between warm-ups and the start of the game, but no one seemed disturbed. Pre-game hosts Kevin Sylvester and Jim Jerome kept the crowd lively as "Go Buffalo go" chants echoed throughout the large stadium.

Fans were treated to the opening segment of CBC's live broadcast of the event, and 30 minutes later a roar went up when NBC's opener was shown on the scoreboard. A few brave souls even ripped off their shirts began waving them around.

"On breaks, I looked around and it was incredible," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "When I looked around there didn't seem to be an empty seat in the building."

Just 21 seconds into the contest most of that noise was sucked out of the venue -- even for just a short while -- when Armstrong banged home a rebound left in the high slot by Ryan Miller, who had just poked away a shot from Crosby after the Penguins captain dashed to the crease from the goalie's right.

"I tried to drive the net hard, wide and went outside," Crosby said. "I just tried to bring it to the net and the puck jumped loose, but it was right there."
"When you see 70,000 people jammed into a stadium to watch hockey it's a good sign. The atmosphere and environment, I don't think you can beat that. It's something to look back on and say we had a lot of great memories being a part of it." -- Sidney Crosby

The Sabres gave up three power plays in the first period, but killed each, leaving the deficit at just 1-0 entering the first intermission. That lasted for only another 1:25 before Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell ripped in the game-tying goal by redirecting a cross-the-zone pass from Tim Connolly past Conklin's glove side.

"Timmy made a great play on that goal," Campbell said. "So, you know, I just had to find a way to put it on the net and, hopefully, it goes in."

Things got dicey for the Penguins right before the overtime as Armstrong was whistled for a hooking penalty at the 20-minute mark of the third period. Armstrong had extra time to think about his infraction as he sat in the box while the Zamboni drivers cleared the ice before the five-minute extra session got going.

"Oh my gosh, I had a little bit of a brain cramp there," Armstrong said. "It's a cold, lonely place over there (in the penalty box). There's no heater in the penalty box. When you're a bad guy, they don't give you much."

It didn't matter as the Penguins killed it off and Conklin stopped all seven shots the Sabres sent his way in the extra session.

The goalies each chose the same side for the shootout, the goal on the western side of the field. Ales Kotalik gave the Sabres the early lead, but Conklin stuffed Tim Connolly before Kris Letang tied it up entering the third round.

Conklin made a brilliant glove save on Maxim Afinogenov before Crosby roared down the ice, deking five times before potting his historic shootout goal right between Miller's legs.

With dusk settling in over the Buffalo region and the snow still falling, the Penguins pounced over the boards to greet their captain, the star of one of the NHL's greatest shows.

Yes, perfect. Simply perfect.

"The whole big picture, sit back and look at it: Packed stadium, snow falling, and obviously Crosby putting it in to win with his little celebration there," Armstrong said. "I thought it was great for the game, and we got two points, too."

Contact Dan Rosen at

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We've got to find a way to win a game. He's played well in the minors, now he gets his opportunity. We tried [with Jonathan Bernier]. The way I look at it, you get opportunities and you make the most of it. That's what [James Reimer] did. Now another opportunity is here and Sparks ... you gotta grab it. Is he ready? We'll find out.

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