Penguins captain Sidney Crosby celebrates the winning shootout goal in the 2008 Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was the ultimate freelance in an unorthodox setting.
Sidney Crosby approached the puck at center ice with the chance to lift the Penguins to a victory if he could convert his turn at a shootout.
"If you would have been in my mind, I'm telling you that all I was thinking about was trying to get a shot on net," he recalled recently.
That's right, the National Hockey League's premier and probably most detail-oriented player, the man who always formulates a plan, was flying by the seat of his icy hockey pants.
That's because this was no ordinary game, not one held in a generic arena. It was the 2008 Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Crosby whooshed his way down the slot that snowy late afternoon and slipped the puck under Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller -- a shot that not only secured a 2-1 New Year's Day victory but also painted a scene so Rockwellian that the NHL had no sensible choice but to make the game an annual event.
The Penguins make a return outdoor appearance for the 2011 Winter Classic. Saturday, it will be against rival Washington in Pittsburgh's most revered backyard -- the middle of Heinz Field.
Crosby had a lot to do with the NHL bringing what has grown into a signature event to town, but he wasn't thinking beyond the temporary boards and difficult ice conditions that day nearly three years ago.
It had started to snow on the teams and 71,217 fans during warmups, and the Zamboni had to make unusual mid-period sweeps to clear the accumulating snow.
"The ice was a little more fresh earlier in the game, so you didn't notice it as much," Crosby said. "But after the first [period], you could tell it was going to be tough to carry the puck a lot. You're pushing the puck and you're just trying to move it forward. You weren't even trying to stickhandle, chipping it in. It was pretty simple hockey. Even guys carrying it, it would just kind of pop up on them."
The Penguins debuted their baby blue jerseys that day. Crosby assisted on Colby Armstrong's goal in the first period, and Brian Campbell tied it for Buffalo in the second.
With a 1 p.m. start on one of the shortest days of the year, and with a game stretched longer than usual because of added ice cleanings, overtime and the shootout, the skies were darkening by the end of overtime, and the players were tiring.
"It was a tough game," Crosby said. "Guys were a little more tired than usual because you had to work harder to get around. It was hard-hitting. On top of that, with how cold it was, it kind of adds to you being tired."
In those days, Crosby was an offensive force but hadn't established himself as a strong shootout participant. He was 1 for 5 that season, 8 for 26 (30.8 percent) in his career going into the game.
The Penguins had two players who were budding shootout specialists, so he was in his customary spot at the time in the shootout order, third. He normally shoots second now.
Penguins goaltender Ty Conklin allowed Ales Kotalik's goal, then stymied Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov.
The Penguins' Erik Christensen missed the net, but defenseman Kris Letang improved to 4 for 4 in shootout attempts that season with a lofted shot.
Crosby was up. The game was going to end or go into the sudden-death portion of the shootout.
He was in his third NHL season and had faced Miller several times. Of course, this was more than two years before he beat Miller in overtime at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to give Canada the gold medal over the United States.
"Even if I did know him pretty well back then, I don't think in those conditions it mattered," Crosby said.
He watched the shooters before him. What stood out was the layer of snow on the ice and the difficulty it posed. So that became his focus when he gathered the puck and made several short stickhandle moves as he skated directly toward Miller, snow flying each time he nudged the puck.
"I just remember trying to hold onto the puck because I couldn't see it," he said. "I just wanted to get a shot away. Honestly, that's all I was worried about. You're dragging a lot of snow. You couldn't really go that fast because you didn't want to lose the puck. When you're carrying it, the snow was kind of going over your blade, so it was hiding the puck as you were pushing it. You just saw it in little spurts, and you felt it."
He got nearly on top of Miller, who opened himself up some when he attempted to poke-check the puck. That's when Crosby pushed the puck under the goalie's pads.
"I just tried to get a shot away," he said. "The last thing I wanted to do was lose the puck or miss the net or something. I just wanted to give it a chance to go in."
The puck might have been difficult to pick out that day, but Crosby saw it cross the goal line. He curled toward the right corner and headed up the ice. He whooped. He jumped up and down. He threw his arms in the air, needing someone to hug.
His teammates streamed off of the bench, met him at the blue line and obliged with a group celebration.
Beginning with that shot that beat Miller, Crosby is 14 of 25 (56 percent) in shootouts to raise his career success rate to 41.1 percent, but he said he doesn't consider that as any sort of turning point.
The game had been difficult, but exhilarating.
"I guarantee you not one guy complained about the ice," Crosby said. "I didn't hear one guy complain. We all knew it was awesome to be a part of it, and whether the ice was tough or the conditions were tough, it didn't matter. Guys were just happy to be a part of it."
The cold began to set in as he made his way to the locker room and started to take off his gear.
"I just wanted some warm clothes and hot chocolate," he said.