NEW YORK -- Maxime Talbot
and Marc-Andre Fleury
were just like many of the 71,217 fans that packed Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1, 2008 for the inaugural NHL Winter Classic. They wore bulky, heavy jackets and toques on their heads and tossed snowballs at each other while the action played out on the makeshift ice rink in the middle of the Buffalo Bills' home turf.
The only difference is Talbot and Fleury wore Penguins jackets and Penguins hats as they stood right behind the Penguins' bench. Ankle injuries are to blame for them missing that special experience in Buffalo three years ago, but knock on wood they won't be just spectators on Jan. 1, 2011, when Pittsburgh hosts Washington at Heinz Field.
Of all the Penguins excited for the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic -- and that's every one of them -- there aren't any two more amped up to play in the outdoor event than Talbot and Fleury, Pittsburgh's affable forward and smiling goaltender, each of whom admits he's lucky to be getting a second chance to make a first impression on New Year's Day.
"We got a chance to practice (at Ralph Wilson Stadium), which kind of gave us a little bit of the experience, but now we're really excited," Talbot told NHL.com. "To play in the Winter Classic has to be amazing, and for a guy like me to have a second chance after not being able to play in the first one is pretty special."
"To play in the Winter Classic has to be amazing, and for a guy like me to have a second chance after not being able to play in the first one is pretty special." -- Maxime Talbot
Fleury is trying not to jinx himself.
"I've been thinking about that a little bit, how cool it will be and all of that, but it's still a little ways away from now and I learned the first time that you never know what can happen until then," he told NHL.com. "I'm looking forward to it and hoping it'll be great and fun, but at the same time not too worried about it right now."
But, like Fleury said, he's thinking about it. They all are. It's almost impossible to ignore.
The city is abuzz with Winter Classic fever. Fans already are buying the special jerseys Pittsburgh will wear Jan. 1. And, of course, HBO's involvement with the upcoming show, "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic" adds a new wrinkle to the Winter Classic hype that, as Talbot said, brings the excitement up even a few more levels.
"Yeah, I've seen more (Winter Classic) jerseys and honestly I feel that the excitement has been there since the start of the year," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby
said. "It's been talked about a lot and with all the things leading up to it we're reminded of it pretty often. It's in the back of everyone's mind, for sure. Not everyone gets to experience (playing in the Winter Classic). For some of us it's our second one and to be in another one and to be at home, yeah, we all feel pretty lucky to be able to do that."
With the first Winter Classic everyone was confident the League was going to hit a home run with its take-it-back-to-the-roots idea of playing a regular-season game outdoors on New Year's Day, but nobody, in particular the Penguins and Sabres, was too sure of what to expect.
What it turned out to be was a forever-to-be remembered moment in NHL history. NBC's perfectly placed cameras made Ralph Wilson Stadium look like a snow globe for millions of televisions across the country, and Crosby, the most watched player in the game, capped it with his memorable shootout goal to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 win.
The image of Crosby screaming while pumping his fists and grasping his stick tightly in his right hand after he beat Ryan Miller
for the winner is an iconic one.
"It was all so new," Crosby said. "There was only the one (outdoor game) in Canada before that, and looking back at it, there was a lot of unexpected things and anticipation. So, yeah, that's always going to be fresh (in your mind), and with the game and how it finished, it's definitely still fresh. It was a lot of fun. It was a pretty amazing day. You couldn't have gotten much better than that for the first one."
Talbot could have. Fleury, too.
Celebrating a win with their teammates was special, but they're still craving the experience. Knock on wood, they'll get it a month from now.
"We practiced the day before in Buffalo, but for the game me and (Fleury) had on the big jacket and our toques and we just hung out right on the field, right by the bench, watching the game from there," Talbot said. "We walked around, but for sure we were jealous. We felt bad that we were not able to play. We're fortunate to have a second chance."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl