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by Staff Writer / Buffalo Sabres
Ryan Miller (photo: Getty Images)
The elements in Ralph Wilson Stadium weren't the most conducive for a free-wheeling style of hockey in Buffalo's 2-1 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year's Day.  And they certainly weren't the best stage for Ales Kotalik's shootout attempt when the game was on the line.

Standing alone at center ice in front of more than 71,000 screaming fans, Kotalik had to determine how  to proceed in Buffalo's first attempt on Pittsburgh's Ty Conklin.

The buildup of snow on the ice surface - coupled with the "bumps" that formed when the precipitation froze - forced Kotalik to abandon his bag of tricks and go simplistic.  He simply didn't believe he could pull off his usual backhand shot that has been so effective in the past.

"I was deciding before what to do," said Kotalik.  "The other night I tried the backhand, but tonight I just decided to shot.  The conditions didn't really allow for any puck handling out there."

Kotalik's wrist shot clipped off the post to give Buffalo a 1-0 lead in the shootout, but the Sabres fell when both Kristopher Letang and Sidney Crosby converted on Pittsburgh's second and third attempts respectively.

Was Kotalik nervous being the first shooter in a pressure-packed situation? You better bet he was.

"It was pretty exciting," said Kotalik.  "Obviously, I was a little nervous about the snow on the ice.  It was pretty tough just to carry the puck in the shootout.

"I was just trying to keep it on my stick.  As you saw with the guys that followed, it was pretty tough to control."

Head coach Lindy Ruff shared Kotalik's concerns and wanted his team.  Unfortunately, Pittsburgh "seemed to adjust a little faster," according to Ruff.

"I had even warned Max [Afinogenov] before he went that if he went too fast, he could easily overskate the puck," said Ruff.  "It almost looked like Ales was going to over skate his."

The shootout wasn't the only thing that the conditions limited.  Defenseman Brian Campbell, who has made a living off his skating ability, puck moving skills and occasional vicious body checks, had to shelve a few of his moves.

"I wasn't going to attempted [a spin-o-rama]," joked Campbell.  "I would have killed myself if I tried to spin out there tonight."

Ryan Miller is no stranger to outdoor games.  As a member of the Michigan State hockey club, Miller minded the Spartans net in the "Cold War" against arch rival Michigan on Oct. 6, 2001.  Miller made 42 saves in the 3-3 tie.

Following Wednesday, Miller compared the two spectacles and his experience in each.

"For me, it was very different," said Miller.  "I was a lot more nervous for [the "Cold War"].  This one I just went out and enjoyed it. 

"I decided to pay more attention to the crowd and the overall experience, where at Michigan State, I was focused on the hockey.  I wanted to take everything in this time.  I feel I've played enough games now where I can pay attention to other things and still focus on the puck.

"Back in college, I didn't want to get too caught up in the emotion of it."

Quotes on the experience of the 2008 NHL Winter Classic

Ales Kotalik:

"I feel really fortunate to be a part of this.  It's going to be one of my biggest memories over my entire sports career."

Ryan Miller

"Obviously, I'm disappointed with the shootout, but overall, I thought it was a great experience."

"Everybody seemed to be either dancing or swaying and chanting to the music."

Lindy Ruff

"The toughest feeling... everything was great until that last shot."

"We had to battle through some elements, but I think that was all part of the program."
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