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NHL Stadium Series

Sidney Crosby happy to be outside again

Hoping Stadium Series against Flyers will be better experience than his first game at Heinz Field

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @Cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby couldn't help but laugh.

The captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins held a press conference after practice at Heinz Field on Friday, talking about the 2017 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports 2, NHL.TV), when a reporter asked one last question:

Given his history in this building with this kind of event, what would it mean to him personally just to get through this one and have a positive experience?

Crosby looked down and smiled.

"It's funny to say 'get through this one,' " Crosby said. "Yeah, it's true. I mean, that'd be nice. I'd like to have a little bit better memory of the whole event and everything that comes along with it than I did last time."

The last time the Penguins played outdoors at Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they were hosting the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals.

Crosby had helped make the experiment of outdoor hockey a success at the 2008 Amp Energy NHL Winter Classic, the first Winter Classic, scoring the shootout winner amid a snow flurry as the Penguins defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 before 71,217 at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Video: 2008 Winter Classic: Sidney Crosby's SO game-winner

Three years later, at a time when outdoor hockey was still relatively new, HBO followed the teams behind the scenes for a miniseries: "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic." The NHL put Crosby and Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin on the side of the ice-making truck. They were literally the faces of the game.

Crosby was playing the best hockey of his life. He had 32 goals and 33 assists in 39 games, on pace for the best offensive season the NHL had seen since the mid-1990s.

But the weather was unseasonably warm for Pittsburgh on New Year's Day, and rain was an issue. The game was pushed from 1 p.m. ET to 8 p.m. ET. The temperature was 51.7 degrees at faceoff, the ice was wet, and a light drizzle was falling at the end of the second period when Crosby turned his head to the right to look back for a puck, curled around and …

Capitals forward David Steckel charged forward to follow the puck and slammed his right shoulder into Crosby's head.

"I was on the ice," Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said. "I kind of caught a glimpse of something, but I didn't really notice. I don't think anybody really paid attention that much. Nobody really knew."

Crosby fell hard and rolled onto all fours. He got up slowly and glided to the bench area hunched over, drawing the attention of a trainer. But he returned for the third period, and the play was a footnote as the Penguins lost to the Capitals 3-1.

"To be honest, it wasn't discussed once in our room," said Penguins forward Eric Fehr, who played in that game for the Capitals and scored twice. "We didn't really know how severe it was. He finished the game. We didn't think anything of it."

Crosby played four days later against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He had an assist, but he took a hit from defenseman Victor Hedman. He sat out with a concussion afterward. Still, nobody really knew.

The longer he sat out, the more serious the situation became and people dissected the original incident at Heinz Field. He ended up missing the rest of that season and playing 22 games the following season. People wondered whether he ever would be the same again -- or even if he would retire.

"It was sad to see him out and seeing him not smiling about it, not playing hockey," Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said.

It would be natural if Crosby felt some unease about this game, if only out of superstition. Once again, the Penguins are playing outdoors at Heinz Field. Once again, the weather is unseasonably warm for Pittsburgh in winter. Once again, faceoff is at 8 p.m. ET.

But enough time has passed, and once again, Crosby is atop the game. In the past 12 months, he has won the Stanley Cup for the second time and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs most valuable player. He has won the World Cup of Hockey 2016 with Team Canada and the tournament MVP award. Entering Friday, he led the League in goals with 33 and ranked second in points with 66, two behind Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid.

"I think the experiences that he's been through have offered him that certain level of perspective," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I don't think he takes anything for granted, and I think it fuels his passion."

Rain is in the forecast Saturday, and the high will be 58 degrees, according to weather.com. But the rain is supposed to end by noon. The temperature is supposed to be 38 degrees by faceoff with a "few snow showers." You never know. This one might be more like Buffalo.

"I think when I look at it, I'm actually … I feel fortunate to have another opportunity to play an outdoor game here in Pittsburgh," Crosby said. "I think the last time wasn't a great experience, so I'm looking for this one to be a better one."

Wes Crosby and Dan Rosen contributed.

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