ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Being a part of the largest crowd ever to attend an NHL game was bittersweet for the Red Wings on a snow globe type of day at The Big House Wednesday.
“It was better than I ever thought it would be,” said Justin Abdelkader, who scored a late-third period goal to send the game into overtime. “The snow coming down the whole game, it was awesome. Obviously, both teams had to deal with the elements. I couldn’t think of a way that the experience could have been better. You’re talking about two original six teams, Toronto and Detroit. You could see both sets of fans getting into it, whether it was ‘Go Leafs, Go’, or ‘Let’s Go Red Wings’. It was a cool experience. I was fortunate to be part of it.”
The Wings had their chances, but they were spoiled when the home team came up short in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who leap-frogged Detroit (46 points) in the Atlantic Division standings with the win.
“I thought we battled hard, played a really good game,” said Brendan Smith, who assisted on both Red Wings’ goals. “I thought they played well, too. That’s the thing about these sometimes. Hockey’s a game of bounces and they had a few and ended up capitalizing on the shootout.
“To even get the one (point) is huge but it’s bittersweet. You want that extra one to put more gap between the Leafs.”
The league announced that they sold 105,491 tickets, which would be a new world record, surpassing the old mark of 104,173 established during the Big Chill in 2010 – a college hockey game between instate rivals Michigan and Michigan State – also at Michigan Stadium, which is 40 miles west of downtown Detroit. However, Wednesday’s attendance must first be verified by Guinness Book of World Records before it is official.
“We know we sold 105,000-plus tickets,” said Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner. “We also suspected there were some no-shows because we heard stories of people taking more than 2 ½ hours to get here from downtown Detroit because of the road conditions and it was at least during the second period 13-degrees with the wind chill of a minus-1 so I don’t know if we set the official Guinness attendance record but I know we set our own record because this was the most well attended game that we’ve ever had.”
Both teams had to deal with the snowy elements all afternoon as the game was occasionally interrupted so that shovel crews could clear the ice.
“We tried to make the best of it,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “Overall, we created some good chances. It was simple hockey, chip it out and chip it in, try to get as much pucks on the goalie.
“Walking out before warm-up was pretty cool, lot of people here already, but even the bus ride coming in, seeing all the fans tailgating, overall it was cool. It was a great experience for our group.”
The winds also became a factor late. Officials pre-determined that the teams would switch sides of the ice after the first half of the third period as well as the five-minute overtime. Unfortunately for the Wings, Zetterberg was nearly gone on a breakaway when the play was blown dead at the 2:30 mark by a stadium horn.
“I knew it before that we didn’t have much time but when I came there I had no idea and the buzzer went,” he said. “That’s the rules. Nothing you can do about it. … We knew the rules.”
Despite the blistery weather conditions, the ice was actually in terrific shape, Zetterberg said.
“The ice was actually better than a lot of arenas we play normally, but the snow was different,” he said. “You kind of got used to it; you knew what you had to do.”
The Wings took a 1-0 lead when Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson collaborated on a 2-on-1 in the second period. Zetterberg slid a pass under Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner to Alfredsson who drove the middle and tapped the puck into the open side of the net at 13:14.
The Leafs went up 2-1 with goals by James VanRiemsdyk and Tyler Bozak in the second and third periods, respectively.
Abdelkader and Smith combined on the Red Wings’ last goal. For the two of them, both alumni of Big 10 schools, getting on the score sheet on the football field of their schools’ rival, was surreal.
“I guess a Badger to a Spartan in the Big House, kind of crazy to think about,” Abdelkader said. “But we’re just playing for the Red Wings and to score for our fans and to tie it up and push it to overtime and a shootout was fun, gave ourselves a chance to win. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pull it off there in the end but great experience, fortunate for the puck to go in and we’ll remember that for the rest of our life.”
For Smith, his two assists now gives him four career points in two outdoor games. Nearly three years ago, Smith scored a pair of third-period power-play goals, including the game-winner – in front of 55,031 fans – to beat Michigan outdoors at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
“For sure, that was quite an experience,” Smith said. “Just to be out there, let alone (get) points or whatnot it’s so cool just to be on the ice. … Just being a part of it, playing against the Leafs when I grew up loving them, it’s such a great experience and I’ll take these memories to when I’m old.”
FROZEN BOTTLE: Abdelkader learned quickly about the problems of playing outdoors in 13-degree temperatures. The Red Wings forward earned the first penalty of the game – a two-minute minor for cross-checking Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf – at 6:39 of the first period, and grabbed for the water bottle as he entered the penalty box.
“Yeah the water bottle was frozen and the water bottle was frozen on the bench so nothing came out,” he said. “That was a big thing too was try to stay hydrated because water wasn’t coming out the bottles so we kind of had to unscrew the top to get it out.”
SHOOTOUT: For the second time in NHL outdoor game history, Wednesday’s game wasn’t decided in 65-minutes of action.
Pavel Datsyuk gave the Red Wings a 1-0 lead in the shootout with a backhand that went bar down behind Leafs goalie Jonthan Bernier, who made 41 saves through the overtime period. But Joffrey Lupul and Bozak scored to give the Leafs the extra point in the standings.
“I wasn’t too sure exactly what I was going to do,” said Lupul, who beat Jimmy Howard to tie the shootout at a goal apiece. “I came in on the same angle that I usually do, one that I’ve been having success with. I actually made a last-second decision to shoot five hole, because he seemed to be out a long way. It looked like I surprised him.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose