For the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Winter Classic represented a halfway point in their season – not quite a literal one, as the outdoor contest was No. 40 of the 82-game campaign, but certainly a mental one.
In the month leading up to the New Year’s Day clash with the Washington Capitals, the team got used to living under a microscope, with HBO cameras documenting their lives on and off the ice. They spent the holiday season surrounded by more family and friends than usual, with loved ones coming to share in the once-in-a-lifetime event at Heinz Field.
And, of course, there was the anticipation for the game itself, which left the Penguins with the disappointment of a 3-1 loss but memories that will last a lifetime.
Now, the game is over. The stadium has been converted back to a football field, with the Pittsburgh Steelers set to host an NFL playoff game there in a little more than a week. The camera crews responsible for some of the most fascinating hockey footage ever seen on television have moved on to their next project.
And, four days removed from the Winter Classic, the Penguins have moved on, too.
Wednesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning was an opportunity to get back to a sense of normalcy, playing hockey indoors at the CONSOL Energy Center, out of the rain, in front of a slightly more modest crowd of 18,261 – about 50,000 fewer than were in the stands Saturday.
“It’s good to get back to normal, without cameras in our faces all the time and, obviously, the hype up to that game and everything,” said defenseman Alex Goligoski. “It was fun, but it’s good to just have the guys back in here and get back to work.”
What the Penguins accomplished Wednesday, however, looked a lot less like work and a lot more like fun. Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin scored a pretty, patient goal right off the opening faceoff, just seven seconds in, and that was the start of a long, long night for the Bolts, who were coming off an emotional, 1-0 overtime win against the Capitals the night before.
By the end of the first period, Pittsburgh had built a 5-0 lead, outshooting Tampa Bay, 20-8. When Lightning star forward Steven Stamkos earned a penalty shot early in the second, he lost an edge on his skate and went sliding before he got anywhere close to the net. Tampa coach Guy Boucher kept alternating his two goaltenders, Dwayne Roloson and Dan Ellis, to avoid either one of them taking too much of the beating.
“The first goal right away set the tone for the rest of the game,” Boucher said. “When you see Stamkos fall like that, it’s one of those days. We had no juice, nothing, and they had everything.”
In the end, Pittsburgh rolled to an 8-1 win, with Chris Kunitz getting the hat trick and Goligoski picking up four points. Captain Sidney Crosby contributed only one assist to the offensive outburst, which was just fine by him.
“I think everyone earned that,” he said. “Every line was going, and it’s always nice to see all that hard work rewarded. A big part of success is everyone contributing.”
And with that complete team effort, in this first game of the second half of their season, Pittsburgh rebounded from a two-game losing streak and got back to playing Penguins hockey.
“It was definitely nice to see,” said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “Geno created an individual effort right at the beginning and I think we got a boost from it; everybody played the way we should and we want.”
“We gave ourselves a chance to create opportunities,” Crosby said. “That’s definitely not [Tampa’s] best hockey, but we did the right things, we were in the right spots and had the right mindset going in that we were going to work hard and compete. They also made some mistakes that they normally don’t make but, if we’re not there, maybe we don’t capitalize on those chances.”
Most important, by coming out with an effort like this one – where they established their game, speed and pace from the opening faceoff – the Penguins provided a strong indication that they have, indeed, managed to put the blur of the past month behind them.
“We talked about the first half, the last month, HBO, the Winter Classic and, now, looking toward the second half of the season,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “But I also did think about maybe [having] a letdown. There was a lot of hype to that month; it had the hype of some playoff series. There was a lot of family around. There were a lot of distractions.
“So, there was a concern about getting back to our game, but the guys had a great week at practice and they came out with purpose and focus and played the way we need to play. They were ready to go. We had a good game, and let’s be ready [again] tomorrow night.”