It was, indeed, a hockey night in Pittsburgh, and it just might have worked out best that way for the city.
Except for the final score, anyway.
The National Hockey League's Winter Classic, forced under the lights for the first time because of earlier rain, made the very most of the Heinz Field stage on a soggy Saturday. There were an Olympics-like opening ceremony, fireworks shot off the stadium rooftops, some 20-foot-tall flames flanking the parade of players, a deafening-at-times din from the crowd of 68,111, a dazzling if eclectic array of Terrible Towels waving over tassel caps and ...
Oh, yeah, that score: Washington Capitals 3, Penguins 1.
Evgeni Malkin gave the home portion of the crowd its first in-game jolt by scoring on a breakaway 2:13 into the second period, but Washington quickly took over and took a 2-1 lead before the end of the period on goals by Mike Knuble and Eric Fehr. Another goal by Fehr at 11:59 of the third, a top-shelf wrist shot over goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's glove, iced it for the Capitals.
Still, all concerned seemed to agree that the move to prime time, even though it did not occur until NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday pushed the opening faceoff from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., paid off in ways that might prove more memorable than the outcome.
"It was a tremendous game, and the scene was spectacular," Bettman said. "Somebody on one of the clubs was telling me that, as they approached the stadium and saw the lights on, they got chills down their spine, that it was one of the most amazing things they'd been associated with in hockey. It might be, just like the game in Buffalo was known for the snow, this one will be legend for another reason."
Players and coaches glowed about the atmosphere.
"It's an amazing feeling. It's pretty easy to see why those guys get so pumped up coming out of the tunnel every weekend," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said, referring to NFL players. "Anytime you have that many people, it's something you dream of doing. It would have been nice to be on the other side of things, but we still feel privileged to be part of it."
"It was pretty cool to have it at night, with all the lights," left winger Max Talbot said. "It would have been a perfect night if we'd won."
Dan Bylsma, the Penguins' coach, called it "a magnificent couple of days" and added, "The experience of coming out on the field, I've talked to a handful of players now after the game ... there's nothing you can compare it to. A really unique experience. One I won't forget."
Bruce Boudreau, his Washington counterpart, said, "When you come in there and see all those people, whether they're booing or cheering ... it was more than just a game for all of us."
It was a rough night individually for Crosby, who finished without a point and was leveled near the end of the second period by a questionable blindside hit from Washington center David Steckel. He looked dazed for a few moments but returned for the third.
Perhaps the most noteworthy victory was that the game was played at all, given what went into maintaining a sheet of ice after heavy rain Saturday morning, as well as temperatures that peaked at 55 degrees and stayed at 52 for the 8:12 p.m. opening faceoff.
The heaviest rain began after midnight Friday and worried the NHL's ice guru, Dan Craig, enough to have workers monitoring the rink through the night under the stadium's full complement of lights. By 11 a.m., to Craig's delight, the surface still felt "really hard."
But the surface failed to fully solidify for the game, as large puddles brought sluggish skating and sloppy puck movement. In the first period, Washington star Alexander Ovechkin, an exceptional skater, simply fell at center ice. In the second, a slight drizzle made matters worse, and it grew heavier in the third.
Bettman said he remained in touch with Craig and on-ice officials during the third period but that he heard no pleas for a delay.
Asked if the rain compromised the integrity of the game, Bettman replied: "It was the same conditions for both teams, and nobody was complaining. While perhaps not perfectly, the puck was moving pretty well, and there were a lot of shots on goal. I've heard ice complaints when we were indoors, as well."
The Penguins had 33 shots, the Capitals 32.
"Conditions were all right," Crosby said. "It started to come down there pretty good, and the puck was bouncing, but who knows if that would have happened anyway because it's the third period? Everybody wanted to get the game in, and everybody knew we'd have to deal with the ice."
The crowd, which was far more vocal and visible in favor of the Penguins despite an initially even distribution of 20,000 tickets to each team, was one of the largest for any sporting event in the city's history, thanks partly to the host Steelers adding temporary seating in the south end zone. The city's known sporting record of 68,918 was set Oct. 29, 1938, for a Pitt football game against Fordham at old Pitt Stadium.
But the scene hardly was limited to the North Shore, as fans clad in Pittsburgh and Washington sweaters dominated Downtown streets, often taunting the others from opposite sidewalks. Hotels were booked solid, private parking lots were charging as much as $40, restaurants and bars appeared mostly full.
Among the entrepreneurs faring the best, of course, were scalpers. One scalper on Sixth Street was seeking $800 for a single seat.
It will take a while for local officials determine the economic impact beyond the preliminary estimate of $30 million, but it was immediately evident that having all those extra bodies in town for another afternoon and evening came with a payoff..
Tailgating in a lot near the Rachel Carson Bridge in the afternoon, Norm Conrad of Vandergrift and his sister, Debi Aker of Accokeek, Md., wore opposing team sweaters -- Conrad in a Mario Lemieux model from the 1980s, Aker in the omnipresent No. 8 of Ovechkin -- and displayed a playful sibling rivalry.
"Her side always loses," Conrad said.
"Not always," Aker corrected with a wag of the finger.
Also in that lot were young couple Jeff and Ronalynn Tebay of New Castle.
"I think it's even better for us as a city to have the first night game outdoors, and it might be better for the NHL's ratings to be in prime time," Jeff Tebay said.
Bettman, asked about that topic afterward, replied: "I can't tell you how good or bad this was. My guess is it's good until we see the ratings. But take into account that all our promotion had been geared to a 1 p.m. start."
The Penguins and Capitals seemed pleased to keep their usual routine by having morning skates at the Consol Energy Center, then napping before a meal. They were bused to Heinz Field -- with police escorts -- shortly after 5 p.m., not long after they would report for a typical game.
The U.S. national anthem was sung by Jackie Evancho, the 10-year-old from Richland, who gained fame on "America's Got Talent." For the ceremonial opening faceoff, U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Bradley Tinstman was flanked by Penguins legend Mario Lemieux and former Steelers stars Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris. And the fireworks, flames and makeshift giant American and Canadian flags -- created by fans holding placards in the north end -- brought camera flashes galore.
"It was a great time," Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz said. "But it's no fun losing."
Dejan Kovacevic: email@example.com . First Published January 2, 2011 5:00 AM