New Year’s Eve and Day and hockey players have some things in common: superstitions and traditions. From eating pork and sauerkraut to not washing your game-day socks during a winning streak, some of the superstitions can get out of hand. The traditions, however, like Pittsburgh Penguins hockey ushering out the old year and ringing in the new, are the perfect way to finish off the holiday season.
Penguins New Year’s Statistics
The Penguins have played 28 games on New Year’s Eve and 10 games on New Year’s Day in 51 seasons. The tradition continues this New Year’s Eve when they face off against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The club has a winning New Year’s Eve record, 14-11-2 all-time. Fourteen of those games were played in front of the home crowd. The team’s New Year’s Day record, however, doesn’t fare as well. The Penguins are 3-7-0 on Jan. 1, with two of those games played outdoors in Winter Classic matchups against the Buffalo Sabres in 2008 and the Washington Capitals in 2011.
Pittsburgh has played two back-to-back New Year’s Eve and Day matchups, first in 1985-86 with an 8-4 win against the St. Louis Blues at the Checkerdome on Dec. 31, and a 7-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at Chicago Stadum the next day. The second instance came in 2003-04, with two losses to the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators.
Pittsburgh has played the Detroit Red Wings more than any other team on New Year’s Eve, facing off in five contests, and the Washington Capitals more than any team on New Year’s Day, with four meetings, including the 2011 Winter Classic.
Penguins New Year’s Memories
The Penguins make memories on days when others make resolutions. From the greatest moment in 100 years of NHL history to the first pro outdoor game in the United States, the black and gold bookend the years with unforgettable performances.
Lemieux’s Five-Goal Spectacular
When the Penguins squared off against the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 31, 1988, no one expected anything but an ordinary game. What the 16,025 fans at the Civic Arena got instead was a game earmarked for hockey history. Though the Devils’ Jim Korn struck first at 3:39 seconds into the first period, Mario Lemieux stole the show after, scoring a regular-strength goal, his first of five tallies on the night, just one minute and eight seconds later. Lemieux scored two more times in less than six and a half minutes, snagging both a short-handed and power-play marker to complete the hat trick.
But Super Mario wasn’t finished yet. He assisted on three goals from Rob Brown, Dan Quinn, and Phil Bourque in the second, and netted a rare penalty shot halfway through the period. Then, to cap off a night that resulted in 25 penalties and 14 total goals, Lemieux scored an empty-netter with one second left in the game to complete scoring five goals five different ways in an 8-6 victory.
In 2017, prior to the announcement of the NHL’s 100 greatest players over its first century, fans voted Lemieux’s five goals five ways as the greatest moment in NHL history.
Malkin Clinches the Comeback
The Penguins had a season to remember in 2015-16, winning their second Stanley Cup in eight years. They couldn’t let the last game of 2016 slip quietly into the night. Things were all tied up with the Montreal Canadiens at the end of the second, with goals from Alexander Radulov, Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel, and Paul Byron. The Canadiens Brian Flynn scored just two minutes into the third period, and it looked like Montreal would grab the last two points of the year.
Conor Sheary had other ideas. He netted the game-tying goal with 55 seconds left in regulation to push things to an extra frame. Just over a minute into overtime, the Canadiens took a bench minor for too many men on the ice, and Evgeni Malkin sprung into action. Malkin hit the net at 1:54 of the extra period to snag his 16th goal of the season and finish off the game for the Penguins with a 4-3 victory.
Despite the win, the Penguins were not satisfied with their performance. Of the game, defenseman Kris Letang said:
“We got the result, but it was wide open. It’s not the style we want to play, but at least we have the character to come back in games.”
That character would be important leading the team into 2017, and a key component of the second of their back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.
2011 NHL Winter Classic Woes
The city of Pittsburgh was excited, to say the least, to host the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field. It was the Penguins’ second appearance in the New Year’s Day event in four years and the first on Pennsylvania soil. What’s more, this contest came against the Washington Capitals, allowing the two teams, and Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin specifically, to take their rivalry outside.
The logistics of a game in Pittsburgh proved to be more difficult than those in Orchard Park, New York, Chicago, and Boston. The high temperature for the day was an unseasonably warm 55 degrees. For this reason, the afternoon game was delayed until 8 p.m. where it would be played under the lights, with the hopes of cooler temperatures that didn’t come. The next problem was the rain, which rolled in around 6 p.m. and continued on and off throughout the game. The conditions made for a soupy mess on the ice, and slow, anti-climactic play.
Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring two minutes into the game, but, that aside, it was as if the Penguins didn’t even show up. The worst blow came in the second period when David Steckel blindsided Crosby, a hit that would start a string of concussion problems that kept Crosby out of the lineup for ten months over a span of two seasons.
Crosby told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“I don’t think [Steckel] meant to hurt me. I don’t think he made an effort to get out of the way, though,” (from ‘First NHL game at Heinz Field memorable for all the wrong reasons,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 2/25/17).
That seemed to be the theme of the night. No one intended for it to be spring in Pittsburgh for one day only. No one intended for it to rain. Steckel didn’t intend to hurt Crosby. But they all happened and made for a miserable memory in Penguins history.
Inaugural NHL Winter Classic’s Picture-Perfect Ending
If you weren’t a hockey fan on the morning of Jan. 1, 2008, and you watched the first NHL Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, there is a good chance you became one by the end of the day.
The contest between the Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres was like something out of a movie. The 71,217 fans that braved the cold and snow were treated to everything the NHL and broadcasting company NBC could have hoped for in the inaugural Winter Classic. After a goal from the Penguins’ Colby Armstrong 21 seconds into the game, and one from the Sabres Brian Campbell over a minute into the second, the game stayed scoreless for the rest of regulation and the five-minute overtime period. The first outdoor contest in the United States came down to the shootout.
The goalies had to share one side of the rink in the shootout because of adverse wind and snow conditions. In round one, Ales Kotalik netted his first shot on Pittsburgh’s Ty Conklin and then Eric Christensen was stonewalled by the Sabres’ Ryan Miller. Next, Conklin stopped Tim Connolly while Miller allowed a shot from Kris Letang. Finally, Conklin made one more stop on Maxim Afinogenov to, of course, leave it all up to Crosby.
Crosby skated toward Miller through the snow-covered slush and shoveled the puck between his pads to finish the first Winter Classic like the hero everyone expected him to be.
With New Year’s Eve games and the Winter Classic staying NHL traditions for the immediate future, there is no doubt that the Penguins will have other memorable moments to add to this list in no time.