The fans: It's a playoff night in Pittsburgh

For fans unable to get inside for the hottest game in town, Penguins bring it outside on giant screen

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Playoff hockey produces extraordinary sights -- from the model of the stegosaurus at the Steel Plaza T stop sporting four ice skates and adorned with a "Lets Go Pens" banner to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger arriving at the arena in style.

It also meant this -- fans bringing their lawn chairs to watch the game on a big screen TV. Outside. In the elements. On the lawn. Just a slap shot away from the doors at Gate Three.

"Pretty sweet," said Lauren Varian, a New York City native and a senior at Pitt. "We hope we can hear the horn from inside."

Actually, the 100 fans gathered outside made plenty of noise of their own, exploding into cheers when Gary Roberts scored the first goal 68 seconds into the game. It was one of many spirited outbursts from a mostly youngish crowd that thoroughly enjoyed the Penguins' 4-0 victory.

Available tickets to the series against the Ottawa Senators were gone in 11 minutes. So to accommodate fans who couldn't get in but wanted to be part of the experience, the Penguins had a contractor erect a huge LED screen, 12 feet wide and 16 feet high, powered by a portable generator. FSN Pittsburgh supplied the feed, and the grassy area outside Mellon Arena was transformed into a TV viewing area. The TV will be available for home games as long as the Penguins are still playing.

The word didn't get out until yesterday morning, but a posting on the team's Web site and the power of message boards brought fans and families together.

"As soon as we saw it was available, we made our plans," said Todd Hart, 21, of Gibsonia, a senior at Robert Morris University. "We'd rather be inside, but that didn't work out. We can still be part of the atmosphere, to be surrounded by a bunch of fans."

Although rain was in the forecast, there was plenty of blue sky at dusk. Not that the threat of inclement weather would have deterred anyone.

"If it was raining, or if snow was falling, people would be out here," said Hart. "It's a great idea. I think they should do it more often."

This is the second consecutive playoff appearance for the Penguins in the Sidney Crosby era. They were eliminated in the first round last year by the Senators, but they have home-ice advantage this time around after winning their division and finishing second in the Eastern Conference.

For fans and players alike, expectations have been raised.

"There's lots of buzz and excitement with the playoffs here," said Crosby, whose media availability after the morning skate was attended by three dozen or so reporters and at least 10 cameramen.

The Penguins and their fans have a special bond, and coach Michel Therrien counted on the noise level to boost his team.

"The crowd brings a lot of emotion for our young team. They feed off the crowd," he said. "We feel confident in our building."

That confidence now extends outside the building. And so do some surprises.

Brian Bowser, 34, of Beechview was camped out in a folding chair to watch the game with his son, Ethan.

"I don't have cable TV at home, and I saw it on the Web site. So we brought our umbrellas and came down," he said.

But then a stranger appeared and gave them two tickets -- worth nearly $200 -- for free. The Bowsers gathered their belongings and headed inside to watch from the seats.

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at First Published April 10, 2008 4:00 AM


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