Third-year center Jiri Hudler, all 5-foot-9, 178 pounds of him, became just the third player to score two goals in an NHL game held outdoors as he sparked the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings to a 6-4 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 at Wrigley Field.
"I got two lucky bounces, what can I say?" Hudler said. "The guys on the ice set me up pretty good and I basically had an empty net to put the puck in both times.''
Hudler, who earned the 100th point of his career on his first goal, 1:14 into the second period, pulled the Wings into a 3-3 tie with his 15th goal of the season at 12:43 of that same period. From there, Detroit pulled away, taking a 6-3 lead before Chicago scored a cosmetic goal in the final seconds.
"The guys were telling me that second one was almost going in slow motion — and maybe it was," he said. "I couldn't put it away after taking a few swipes at it."
Hudler's two goals in an outdoor game equaled the two scored by Montreal teammates Richard Zednik and Yanic Perreault during the Heritage Classic in 2003. The Canadiens won that game 4-3 over the Oilers at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. Then-Oiler goalie Ty Conklin suffered the loss that day.
In this year's outdoor contest -- the third staged by the NHL and second within the United States -- Conklin was on the winning side, thanks, in large part, to Hudler. The third two-goal game of the season for Hudler was certainly what the Wings and coach Mike Babcock were looking for to swing the game's momentum.
"Hudler is a sneaky little guy and real talented," Babcock said. "The puck follows him around, and that's what good players do. He's like (Patrick) Kane that way. He's not as dynamic a skater, but the puck just follows these guys around because their hockey sense is so good."
Hudler, the shortest and lightest player on the Wings' roster, admits being on a line with great players is a big reason for his success. On Hudler's first goal, he was sharing the ice with Marian Hossa and Henrik Zetterberg because a power-play had just expired a second earlier.
"It's easy to put pucks in when you play with great linemates and we have such great veteran leadership on this team," Hudler said. "Even when we were behind by two after the first period, we still had great confidence. It's not the first time we've been down 3-1 after the first period, so we talked about our game plan and we just stuck with that.
"We have a lot of talent in this room and lot of veteran leadership so we never panic. When you look around the locker room and see the guys so calm, it really just settles you down as well."
Zetterberg, who notched an assist on Hudler's first goal, considers his teammate a tremendous weapon in an already potent offensive lineup.
"He's really finding open spots and the puck always seems to find him," Zetterberg said. "He's really gifted with the stick and he knows how to put the puck away when he has that opportunity."
For the game, Hudler scored twice on three shots and finished with a plus-3 rating while earning 14:36 of ice time on 21 shifts. He now has 44 goals, 102 points and a plus-33 rating in 210 career games.
"He somehow finds ways to score," said Kris Draper, one of the Wings' alternate captains. "That's what Huds does. He's great with the puck and picks his spots really good. He's able to score big goals for us and at a time when we needed to bounce back. Huds was able to provide."
Whether he was playing for Vsetin in the Czech Republic or the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League before coming to the Wings, Hudler never used his height disadvantage as an excuse.
"I'd tell any aspiring player who maybe isn't that tall to always have fun and compete," Hudler said. "You want to challenge those bigger guys and take them on. But to play with guys like (Nicklas) Lidstrom, (Chris) Chelios, Draper, Zetterberg and (Pavel) Datsyuk certainly make it a little easier."
"Hudler is a sneaky little guy and real talented. The puck follows him around, and that's what good players do. He's like (Patrick) Kane that way. He's not as dynamic a skater, but the puck just follows these guys around because their hockey sense is so good." -- Detroit coach Mike Babcock
A big man that has been around for what seems like forever and has seen some pretty amazing things in his 20-odd years in the sport is impressed with Hudler's sense of the moment.
"The kid has had a great first half of the year, and he's always around the net and works for it," Chelios, the veteran defenseman, said. "He finds those hard zones to play and jumps in there and that's a credit to him. He's a finisher."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com