STATELINE, Nev. -- Hockey heaven. That's what it was. It was a sight unlike any the NHL had ever seen and may ever see again.
The sun set behind the Sierra Nevada late in the first period of the Boston Bruins' 7-3 win against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday, and suddenly, from the aesthetics to the ice to the competition, it all came together even better than the League had planned.
"Oh, man, it was beautiful," Bruins forward David Pastrnak told NBCSN. "We enjoyed every second of it, as you could see."
The NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe was supposed to celebrate the most romantic roots of hockey, a bunch of guys playing for the love of the game outdoors in the wilderness.
With the coronavirus pandemic limiting crowds across North America, it was a made-for-TV event with no fans in attendance. Hoping to maximize the scenery and the TV audience, the NHL scheduled two games on the 18th fairway of the golf course at Edgewood Tahoe Resort, one Saturday, one Sunday, each at 3 p.m. ET/noon PT.
The weather didn't cooperate with the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday. Despite the forecast calling for partly cloudy skies, the sun forced the NHL to suspend the game after the first period because of poor ice conditions. The Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights resumed at midnight ET/9 p.m. PT, with the Avalanche winning 3-2.
With the forecast calling for sun throughout the afternoon Sunday, the NHL delayed the Bruins and Flyers until 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.
It was a blessing in disguise.
The sun glared off the lake and ice in the southwest corner of the rink during warmups and early in the first period. It appeared to play a role when Pastrnak gave Boston a 1-0 lead 34 seconds into the game off a pass by Bruins forward Brad Marchand at that end.
"It was really funny," Pastrnak said. "[Marchand] told me he couldn't even see the net, so he was like, 'I was passing the whole time.'"
But about the time Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy tied the game 2-2 at 15:27, the sun slipped behind the mountains.
Just like that, the glare was gone. You could still see the mountains and the lake in detail, just in softer hues. The ice was good, and we had a competitive game between MassMutual East Division rivals.
By the time the teams walked out for the second period, the sky was turning shades of yellow, orange and blue, and the ice was bright white under the artificial lights.
"It was truly like a nighttime outdoor game like when you were a kid playing outside on the pond," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. "That's what it felt like. The trees … You know, walking on the bench, you see the lake, a few boats back there. A very pristine sort of surroundings. That was my favorite part."
Pastrnak gave the Bruins a 3-2 lead 46 seconds into the second. As the period went on and the sun sank deeper, the colors became deeper too -- orange and pink and purple. You could see only the outline of the mountains now; the snow and the lake below had faded to black. The ice was an even brighter white. It looked like an oil painting, art.
You could barely make out the mountains by the time the Bruins broke open the game with three goals late in the second, and the sky was totally dark for the third. But Pastrnak, who capped the scoring by completing at hat trick with 2:56 to go, said, "I mean, the dark is beautiful too." The lights illuminated the pines towering behind the benches.
"Hats off to the NHL and everyone who made this happen," Bruins defenseman John Moore said. "It was really special. It's a tough year without fans. You can't really say enough about this event. I've been fortunate to play in a couple of outdoor games, and this one really blows them all out of the water."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that despite the issues the League faced, the weekend was wonderful for the game. But don't forget why the NHL took the game to a place it never had before. Don't forget why we heard only the natural sounds of the hockey, the scrapes of skates, the smacks of pucks. The roar of the crowd was missing, and it was missed.
"This is obviously a special event put on under very special circumstances," Commissioner Bettman said. "But the game and the players draw tremendous energy from our fans, and that's really what it's all about. So as unique and as compelling as this may be artistically, the fact is, we want to be back with our fans."
The NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe was as fleeting as a sunset, and in the end, it was what it was supposed to be, a bunch of guys playing for the love of the game outdoors in the wilderness.
"Overall, it's great fun and really enjoyable out here," Pastrnak said. "Too bad we have to leave."