Winter? Sure. The NHL’s game of the year was postcard pretty, with the falling snow clashing brilliantly with the bright red and blue sweaters of the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs.
But a classic? Not quite.
Toronto’s 3-2 shootout win over Detroit at the Big House was heavy on the spectacle that draws in the casual viewer — which, of course, is the primary focus of the event — but it was a miserable display of hockey. For most of the contest, this was two middling teams playing to prevent goals rather than score them. Even the Red Wings’ sublimely gifted Pavel Datsyuk was reduced to playing dump-and-chase rather than showcasing his skills in front of the largest crowd in NHL history and a massive TV audience.
Not even a late game-tying goal by Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader — which sent the contest first to overtime, and then to a shootout — could save this from being arguably the worst Winter Classic in history.
Clocking in at almost four hours long (as one wag noted, even the Yankees and the Red Sox found it interminable), this game made the point that outdoor contests might best be limited to once a season.
The ice was in magnificent shape, a credit to Dan Craig and his crew, but it was compromised by the snow that fell throughout the game, leading to several shoveling breaks that disrupted what little flow the two teams had. When the puck was in play, it was slowed or even obstructed by the snow, making stickhandling difficult and long passes nearly impossible.
No surprise then that there were plenty of shots — get the puck to the net, both teams said — but few real scoring chances. And two of the best, both for the Red Wings, were interrupted by the changing-of-the-ends buzzer that stopped play midway through the third period and overtime to compensate for the wind that was whipping through Michigan Stadium.
That’s not to say that the game was a complete disaster. The shootout has its detractors, but it makes for a dramatic finish, and Datsyuk, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak all netted the kind of beauties that left fans buzzing. The goalies — Toronto’s Jonathan Bernier and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard — each made a couple of thrilling stops, with Bernier, not surprisingly, handling the bulk of the work as the Maple Leafs struggled to transition out of their zone for much of the game.
But the real star of the game was an overhead camera that provided a breathtaking view of the action, easily the best ever offered on television. Tracking the play lengthwise, swooping and diving to give a perspective that was somehow both broad and intimate, it brought the game to life the (frustratingly) few times it was used. NBC reportedly had 82 cameras on hand today — and could have ditched all but the overhead and still put on an absolutely thrilling broadcast. It needs to be used, and used liberally, for the remaining five outdoor games.
No doubt this event will age well over time — folks will remember the snow globe more than the snow shovels — but as a game, it fell well short of previous Winter Classics and set a pretty low bar for the rest of this year’s outdoor schedule to top.