Since 2008, the NHL has taken hockey back to its roots at least once a season by scheduling outdoor contests at football and baseball stadiums across the United States and Canada, including the New Year’s Day Winter Classic, the Canadian-based Heritage Classic, and the stretch run’s Stadium Series games.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 24, 2019
The Pittsburgh Penguins have participated in five outdoor matchups since 2008, the second most of any NHL team, with the Chicago Blackhawks holding the record of six appearances.
The Penguins have struggled and shined in their outdoor efforts, and have battled injuries, the elements, and rivals in these contests. Here are the Penguins’ five outdoor game appearances ranked from worst to best in terms of outcome, performance, and additional unexpected factors.
5. 2011 Winter Classic
Who: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals
When: Jan. 1, 2011
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Outcome: Capitals Won 3-1
Though hindsight is 20/20, the 2011 Winter Classic was doomed before it began. This game marked the first Winter Classic held outside of a traditionally cold and snowy city like Orchard Park, New York, Chicago, Illinois, or Boston, Massachusetts. While Pittsburgh gets a fair amount of winter weather, an unseasonably warm pattern settled over the city on Dec. 31, 2010, forcing the powers that be to move the game from its original 1:00 p.m. start time to 8:00 p.m. under the lights at Heinz Field.
Aside from the temperatures, rain was also a concern. Light rain could freeze on contact with the playing surface, making it uneven. Heavy rain could flood the rink. Despite the weather woes, the game went on as scheduled that night, but the Penguins, dressed in what would later be known as the “Blue Jerseys of Doom” for their correlation to losses, injuries, and general bad luck, probably wish it had been canceled altogether.
The Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring roughly two-and-a-half minutes into the second period, but it was downhill from there.
Sidney Crosby sustained a hard, controversial hit from David Steckel in the second period which resulted in a concussion, and he missed most of the second half of the season. To make matters worse, the Capitals scored three unanswered goals to take the game in a frustrating, messy, anticlimactic finish.
This is one game the Penguins and their fans wish they could forget: a loss to the rival Capitals, with the city looking unfit to hold an outdoor game on national television, and an unnecessary injury to Crosby that would affect the rest of the season as well as his playing ability and mindset for a few seasons after.
The 2011 Winter Classic is, without a doubt, the Penguins’ worst outdoor game showing to date, from all angles.
4. 2014 Stadium Series Game Four
Who: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Chicago Blackhawks
When: Mar. 1, 2014
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois
Outcome: Blackhawks Won 5-1
If the 2011 Winter Classic is a game the Penguins wish they could forget, the 2014 Stadium Series game in Chicago was easy to forget. The game was uneventful from the Penguins’ side.
Being the first year for the Stadium Series, the NHL went all out, holding four outdoor games from January through March, in addition to the Winter Classic and Heritage Classic, both held that year. The Penguins vs. Blackhawks contest was the last of the four games and coincided with the last day of Hockey Weekend Across America.
With too many outdoor games held in the span of about two months, fans were apathetic and so, it seemed, were the players.
The weather didn’t make headlines; it snowed off and on but not to any extreme. The uniforms were ugly and forgettable, designed to look like the logo and numbers had been dipped in chrome, if not steel to represent the steel city. There were no serious injuries to report, Chicago isn’t a Pittsburgh rival, and the Blackhawks blew the Penguins out of the water on the scoreboard.
The Hawks lead 3-0 going into the third period. James Neal found the net at 6:21 of the last frame to try to breathe some life into the Penguins, but the Blackhawks tallied two more markers before the horn to win 5-1. Though the final score looks like a clobbering, and like it should be the Penguins’ worst outdoor game of all time – it was no doubt their worst performance as a team – but it was too boring to earn that dishonor.
3. 2019 Stadium Series
Who: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
When: Feb. 23, 2019
Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Outcome: Flyers Won 4-3 in Overtime
With the wound is still raw on this arguably entertaining game, how many Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers matchups can be considered mundane? This was the second of a home-and-home outdoor game series between the Penguins and Flyers played two years apart, and the Flyers were looking for revenge after losing the 2017 Stadium Series Game in Pittsburgh.
Never one to cooperate, Pennsylvania weather was up to its old tricks. This time, Philadelphia was under a warm pattern and rain was predicted to interfere with the game held at 8 p.m. under the lights at Lincoln Financial Field, though the contest went off as planned.
Doing what he does best, Crosby opened the scoring eight minutes into the first period and relished the boos from the larger Philadelphia crowd. But things would take a turn late in the first when Wayne Simmonds put a high hit on defenseman Brian Dumoulin, which resulted in a concussion.
Simmonds was not penalized for the hit, but rather for unsportsmanlike conduct following a tussle. In the melee, Letang received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as well, and an upper-body injury which took both members of the Penguins’ top defensive pairing out of the game.
Despite the injuries and being down to four defensemen, the Penguins continued to rally, picking up goals from Justin Schultz and Malkin in the second and third periods, respectively. However, in typical Penguins fashion of late, the Flyers were able to creep in and steal two more goals at the end of the third to tie the game, and Flyers captain Claude Giroux snuck one past Matt Murray just 1:58 into overtime to claim a 4-3 victory.
This game was interesting to watch at times, albeit a little slow because of the rain and ice conditions, and probably would have ranked higher on the list if the Penguins had been able to pull off a win through the adversity.
2. 2017 Stadium Series
Who: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
When: Feb. 25, 2017
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Outcome: Penguins Won 4-2
The 2017 Stadium Series had so many storylines, even before the puck drop, that it was bound to be a good game. This was the first of a home-and-home outdoor game series to be played between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, two years apart, adding another layer to the teams’ famous rivalry.
Additionally, this particular matchup was scheduled to celebrate the NHL’s 100th anniversary, and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 expansion, of which the Penguins and the Flyers were a part.
Of course, as with any outdoor game played in Pennsylvania, the weather was a problem. After the issues with the 2011 Winter Classic, the ice crew was concerned when temperatures rose to an unusually high 76 degrees in Pittsburgh the day before the game. Luckily, the temperatures dropped during gameday making for a windy but cold atmosphere at puck drop.
This game was tighter, with more back-and-forth than some of the Penguins’ other outdoor contests. Crosby opened the scoring midway through the first to cheers at Heinz Field, but the second period had trade-off strikes from Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonino and Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek.
The Penguins were leading by one going into the third when Matt Cullen struck fast to extend the gap to 3-1. The Flyers’ Shayne Gostisbehere found the net to pull the Flyers within one, but Chad Ruhwedel snagged back the two-goal cushion at 14:06, making the final score Penguins 4-2.
Both Penguins and Flyers Stadium Series games were equivalent and played on the teams’ rivalry and the novelty of being outdoors, in unpredictable weather to boot. However, this game ranks higher, of course, because the Penguins were victorious.
1. 2008 Winter Classic
Who: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Buffalo Sabres
When: Jan. 1, 2008
Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium (now New Era Field), Orchard Park, New York
Outcome: Penguins Won 2-1 in a Shootout
No matter how many outdoor games the Penguins play, they will be hard-pressed to top the inaugural Winter Classic from 2008. Aside from it being a historical moment – the first regular-season professional ice hockey game played outdoors in the United States – the first Winter Classic was also perfectly scripted by mother nature and one of the league’s great superstars in the making.
The snowy, cold, icy backdrop of Orchard Park, New York set the scene as the players marched to the ice in their throwback uniforms, the Penguins in their powder blue threads and the Buffalo Sabres in their white jerseys, donned for the first time 30 years prior. The goalies sported custom masks and vintage pads for the occasion.
The game was tight, partially due to the weather, and fans were on the edge of their seats. Colby Armstrong opened the scoring for Pittsburgh just 21 seconds into the first period. Buffalo’s Brian Campbell tied it up just over a minute into the second, and no one was able to break the tie in the third.
Five minutes of overtime couldn’t find a winner, so a shootout was necessary. Due to the snowy conditions, both goalies tended the same net in the shootout, so as to not give one team an unfair advantage. Buffalo shot and scored first on an attempt from Ales Kotalik, followed by a miss from Pittsburgh’s Erik Christensen, and a save on Buffalo’s Tim Connolly. The Penguins’ Kris Letang found the net behind Ryan Miller to even the total, and Ty Conklin stopped the Sabres’ Maxim Afinogenov to put the game on Crosby’s stick.
It all came down to one shot from the Penguins’ captain. He was able to push the puck through the five-hole to win the game 2-1 for the Penguins, an ending that people will still be talking about in 2058, on the 50th anniversary of the first Winter Classic.
Though the spectacle of outdoor games is a hot-button issue, the trend will hold at least through the 2019-20 season, when three outdoor games are already on the schedule: the Heritage Classic matchup between the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets in Regina, Saskatchewan on Oct. 26, 2019; the 2020 Winter Classic between the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars in Dallas, Texas; and the Stadium Series contest between the Los Angeles Kings and the Colorado Avalanche at the Air Force Academy in Colorado on Feb. 15, 2020.