The Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins gathered at their blue lines following the NHL Winter Classic, taking in their unforgettable surroundings one last time. They raised their sticks to salute the fans, and the NHL's largest crowd responded with a final roar.
Because of the way the game ended, the applause was warranted. The Sabres and Penguins skated through more than three hours of often-uneventful hockey just to get to the final play. The conclusion was a dream come true for the NHL and the 71,217 in attendance.
Sidney Crosby, the world's foremost player, was standing in the middle of Ralph Wilson Stadium with the puck on his stick. The stakes were clear. If he scored on his shootout attempt, the Penguins would win. If he was stopped by goaltender Ryan Miller, the game would go on and Sabres fans could keep singing and dancing.
Crosby lived up to his reputation. The reigning Most Valuable Player added another accomplishment to his resume, beating Miller between the pads and lifting the Penguins to a 2-1 victory in the New Year's Day extravaganza.
"The atmosphere and excitement, I don't think you can beat that," Crosby said. "It's something to look back and say we had a lot of great memories being a part of it."
Though the on-ice action was staggered and spotty, the outdoor game matched the hype by being a memory-creating event. That it was Crosby creating the winning moment seemed fitting since the game was meant to build the NHL's reputation, not the Sabres' win column.
"It was great for hockey and great for the city of Buffalo," Sabres center Tim Connolly said. "Unfortunately, we didn't come out with the win."
It's become a common situation. The Sabres are winless in their last four games, falling to 0-2-2. They are 10th in the Eastern Conference, two spots out of a playoff spot.
But that's a problem for today. Tuesday was all about making history. The fans who filled The Ralph shattered the NHL attendance record of 57,167, set in 2003 in Edmonton during the league's only other outdoor game.
Crosby started and ended the action. He immediately gave the viewers who wanted to check out the start of the show reason to stick around. He drove to the Sabres' net shortly after the opening faceoff, and Miller stopped his chance. But Colby Armstrong buried the puck just 21 seconds in, getting a rise from the crowd that hadn't even sat down yet.
"I figured maybe it'd be a high-scoring game after that," Sabres center Derek Roy said, "but unfortunately it wasn't."
The conditions had a lot to do with that. A heavy snow constantly covered the ice, especially during the first period. The game was delayed numerous times for ice repairs and snow removal, including Zamboni appearances midway through the first, second and third periods.
"It's too bad it snowed so hard because you couldn't do much with the puck out there," Sabres left wing Jochen Hecht said. "All we could do most of the time was dump it in and chase it. There was no room for nice plays, so that was the only bad thing about it."
The biggest cheer of the day came 1:25 into the second period when the Sabres finally solved old friend Ty Conklin, who blanked Buffalo on Saturday, 2-0. The shutout streak against the Sabres for Conklin, Miller's backup last season, ended at 81:25 when Brian Campbell sent a cannon over his left shoulder.
Connolly entered the Penguins' zone along the boards and sent a pass across the ice for Campbell. The defenseman settled the puck first, then ripped a shot that led the rocking crowd to raise its arms in unison.
"Timmy made a great play on that goal," Campbell said. "I just had to find a way to put it on net."
The goal came during a long stretch of Sabres domination. Buffalo held Pittsburgh without a shot for 24:23. The Penguins' last shot of the first period came with 6:17 left, and they didn't get another one until only 1:54 remained in the second.
"We came out and had a great second period where I don't think they really had a shot," said Miller, who made 24 saves. "I mean, they might have given them one, but I don't remember really touching one."
The Sabres took off once they stayed out of the penalty box. They took three penalties in the first 12:17 but were infraction-free after that.
"It was kind of sloppy in the first period with those short-handed situations," Sabres captain Jaroslav Spacek said. "After that we started to play much better hockey."
Conklin, who made 36 saves, kept Buffalo off the board after Campbell's goal to send the game to the shootout. Sabres right wing Ales Kotalik went first, beating Conklin with a shot on the glove side.
"It's going to be one of the greatest memories of my life," Kotalik said.
Kris Letang's backhand goal as the Penguins' second shooter tied the extra session at 1-1. After Conklin stopped Maxim Afinogenov, the game was put in Crosby's hands.
"I was thinking, 'We got a pretty good guy up there,' " Conklin said. "I know we all were."e-mail: email@example.com