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NHL Stadium Series

Super scene in Pittsburgh

Sidney Crosby, packed Heinz Field make for another special outdoor game

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- This was the better memory Sidney Crosby wanted.

The Pittsburgh Penguins captain glided backward off the right side of the net in the first period Saturday night, head up, stick down. The pass came through the slot, fast and flat on the outdoor ice, and Crosby looked down and settled the puck on his blade for a split-second.

As Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth tried to slide over to stop him, Crosby ripped the puck into the net for his NHL-leading 34th goal of the season. He raised both arms as Heinz Field roared and fans waved their Terrible Towels as if they were at a Pittsburgh Steelers game. Snowflakes swirled in the air above.

"Great to get one outside here at home," Crosby said. "It was a great feeling."

Video: PHI@PIT: Crosby buries Guentzel's slick dish

The Penguins went on to defeat the Flyers 4-2 in the 2017 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, a game nothing like the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic even though it was played in the same place, a game that showed how special these events continue to be even though the NHL has staged them 22 times.

The 2011 Winter Classic didn't feel like winter and certainly wasn't a classic for Crosby, the Penguins or Pittsburgh. It was delayed seven hours to 8 p.m. ET. The temperature was 51.7 degrees at faceoff. Drizzle turned into light rain during the game, and the ice puddled. Crosby took a hit that led to concussion problems. The Penguins lost 3-1 to the Washington Capitals.

This time the game was scheduled for 8 p.m. ET. The temperature was 36 degrees at faceoff. It was windy, but the ice was excellent.

"There was a little bit of snow when it was coming down, but other than that, everybody was raving about it," Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said.

Video: PHI@PIT: Group of penguins enter ice at Heinz Field

Crosby scored the first goal, and the Penguins never trailed in a physical, hard-fought game.

"I'm sure that the experience of coming back here probably brought back some memories that he probably would like to forget," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "And so to have a night like tonight and have an opportunity to play in such an exciting venue and start the game off the way he did and score a goal for us, I'm sure probably helped him just put that experience behind him."

There is no denying the crowd thinned as the game went on, highlighted by the bright yellow seats, especially in the upper reaches of the stadium where the wind whipped most. There is no denying outdoor hockey has lost its novelty as an idea. It has been done too many times to be a novel idea anymore.

But Heinz Field was full at faceoff except for perhaps a handful of seats, and the attendance was announced as 67,318. Remember that the whole point is to turn regular-season games into spectacles. This was game No. 908 of the 1,230-game NHL schedule, no more, no less. Had it been played at PPG Paints Arena, which has an official capacity of 18,387 but can squeeze in a few more, it would have drawn about 48,700 fewer fans.

The NHL has held outdoor games across North America involving 23 of its 30 teams in all kinds of conditions, as cold as 0 degrees at faceoff, as warm as 65. Some have been better than others. Some have been tougher sells than others. But not one yet has been canceled because of weather, and each stadium has been full.

The total attendance for the 22 outdoor games is 1,208,317. Had those same games been played at the usual home arenas and sold out, they would have drawn 795,663 fewer fans and not generated the extra buzz.

Video: PHI@PIT: Antonio Brown introduces Pens before game

Each event has been a big deal locally. You had to be there hours before the game Saturday as fans in jerseys of both teams flooded downtown Pittsburgh, walked over the Allegheny River on the Roberto Clemente Bridge and tailgated in the parking lots. You had be there as they lined up to see the Stanley Cup and packed The PreGame festivities outside the stadium. You had to be there as the players walked into Heinz Field flanked by fireworks, the rink set amid a rendering of the Fort Pitt Bridge.

Imagine if you were one of the players, especially if you had never experienced something like this before. Asked if he had caught himself taking in the scene at any point, Ruhwedel, 26, playing his 48th NHL game and first outdoors, smiled and said: "The whole time? Does that count? Yeah, especially for warmups, you just see that this place is completely packed. Wasn't ready for those fireworks, either. Obviously everybody in the League I'm sure would want to experience this. If we had 68,000 people here, it seems like they liked it too."

Penguins forward Matt Cullen is 40. This was his 1,348th NHL game. But it was his first outdoors too. He scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the third and said years from now he would remember looking up at the "wall of Pittsburgh fans," the snow and the lights.

"It was novel to me, and it was pretty awesome late in the game how many people were still in the upper deck," Cullen said. "That had to be really cold up there with that wind, and they stuck it out the whole time. I think it's an awesome deal for the League. People may argue one way or the other. But to me, I think that's what hockey's all about. It's such a good event."

Video: PHI@PIT: Cullen goes five-hole to beat Neuvirth

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