The National Hockey League stepped outside of the box during the 2007-08 season when it made the decision to play an outdoor hockey game between the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the National Football League’s Bills.
|Sidney Crosby secured a 2-1 victory for the Penguins in the 2008 Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo with this shootout goal against Ryan Miller. Credit - Getty Images |
It was a move that turned out to be one of the biggest home runs the league has ever hit.
On an afternoon where snowflakes provided a picturesque setting, then-reigning scoring champion and Hart Trophy winner Sidney Crosby
, already the face of the league at 20, provided the perfect ending to a spectacular day by scoring the game-deciding goal in the shootout as the Penguins skated away victorious with a 2-1 shootout win on January 1, 2008 in the inaugural Winter Classic.
Crosby’s goal was an instant ratings hit for the NHL as the images of him sliding the puck between the legs of the Sabres Ryan Miller and the ensuing celebration were among the leading items on highlight reels throughout North America for the next 48 hours, a tremendous feat when you step back and remember New Year’s Day is traditionally known for college football bowl games.
There was plenty of skepticism when the NHL announced during the summer of ’07 that it would be heading outside for a regular-season game that season, but that was all erased quickly thanks to a great contest with the epic ending between the Penguins and Sabres.
The crowd of 71,217 – the largest in NHL history – barely had time to take a seat when the Penguins lifted many of them right back out just 21 seconds in.
Crosby stick checked one of the Sabres and stole the puck in the neutral zone and sped from the near boards to the top of the crease, where Miller poked the rubber off his blade into the slot. Colby Armstrong was Johnny-on-the-spot as he tossed the loose puck just passed the glove of Miller to open the scoring.
Pittsburgh held that 1-0 lead the remainder of the period, but Buffalo evened the score just 1:25 into the second period when defenseman Brian Campbell beat Penguins netminder Ty Conklin on a wrist shot from the high slot to tie the score at 1-1.
Neither team was able to tickle the twine over the next 43:35 minutes as a goaltending dual broke out between Conklin and Miller.
Conklin, who along with Penguins forward Georges Laraque was playing in his second outdoor game after also starting for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2003 Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium against the Montreal Canadiens in Alberta, was especially impressive. (Ironically, Conklin would start for the Detroit Red Wings the following year in the 2009 Winter Classic.)
Filling in for an injured Marc-Andre Fleury
, Conklin stopped 36 of the 37 shots he saw – many of those of the acrobatic variety down the stretch. Conklin, who was named the game’s No. 2 star for his efforts, was at his best during overtime when the Sabres outshot Pittsburgh, 7-0.
At the other end, Miller turned aside 24 of Pittsburgh’s 25 shots.
With neither team able to crack the other’s netminder, the contest shifted to a shootout – and that’s when the fun really began.
Ales Kotalik opened the shooting by beating Conklin with a wrist shot to give Buffalo a 1-0 advantage. Miller denied the Penguins’ first shooter, Erik Christensen, while Conklin rebounded following the Kotalik tally to make a right-pad save on Tim Connolly.
Shooting second for Pittsburgh was 20-year-old rookie blueliner Kris Letang
, who at that time was 3-for-3 in shootouts. Letang quickly improved to 4-for-4 as he skated in on his forehand before turning the puck to the backhand and lifting a shot over the blocker of Miller to even the shootout at 1-1.
Conklin then gave Crosby the chance to be the hero as he made the final dramatic save of the afternoon on Maxim Afinogenov. The speedy Sabre broke down the middle and made a move to his backhand, but Conklin was equal to the task as he dived down to the ice in a snow-angel position while making a glove save on Afinogenov.
And just like that the game was in the hands of hockey’s premier superstar.
As snowflakes flew in his face Crosby stickhandled down the slot. When he got to the top of the crease Miller went for the pokecheck. Crosby avoided that and slid a shot between Miller’s legs for the game-winning goal in what has already proven to be one of the most-iconic images in NHL history.
Crosby’s game-winner not only secured an important two points for the Penguins and further cemented his status as one of the game’s best clutch performers – it proved to be a pivotal moment for the NHL.
Thanks to the perfect ending from the perfect player in the perfect setting, a new NHL tradition was born. Following the success of the ’08 tilt, the Winter Classic became an annual event anticipated by sports fans across the globe.
On January 1, 2011, Crosby and the Penguins have a chance to make history again when the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic comes to Heinz Field. With Crosby and the Penguins hosting Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, it figures to be every bit the success the ’08 contest was.