The Winter Classic is the biggest spectacle of the NHL regular season — the kind of event that involves special jerseys and intermission performances by the Roots and an HBO camera crew on-site to document it all. It's a dream situation for the NHL: The game appeals to the die-hard hockey fan — the kind of person the league must always be careful not to alienate — but it also piques the interest of the casual sports fan. Of course, just like the Super Bowl, there's no guarantee the game will live up to the enormous hype. Even matching up bitter division rivals doesn't necessarily assure NBC of a dramatic game. And make no mistake: This is a made-for-TV event, not only for NBC, but now for HBO, as well. (After all, the behind-the-scenes look at the game serves as the finale to 24/7.) There have been some exciting Winter Classic endings before — Sidney Crosby scored the shoot-out winner in Buffalo, and Boston won the game at Fenway Park in overtime — but yesterday's game might have topped all of them.
In just five years, the league has generated such a buildup to the Winter Classic that it shouldn't come as a surprise that Mike Emrick, tweaking a line once used by his broadcast partner Ed Olczyk, said before the game even began that "thus far, this has been outstandingly outstanding." The game is the crown jewel of the week's activities, to be sure, but sort of like an All-Star Game, it's only one of several events that will take place on the rink at Citizens Bank Park. By the time yesterday's game began — after the alumni game and the televised Sunday practice and the Patti LaBelle–sung national anthem — the league was already well on its way to staging a successful celebration of the sport.
The hockey story lines, meanwhile, started coming before NBC even went on the air yesterday when John Tortorella made the surprise announcement that Marc Staal, who hadn't played all season because of a concussion, would make his debut in the game. (It recalls Jordan Staal's return from injury in last year's game — something HBO will surely point out on Thursday night.) But it was the finish yesterday that made this game truly memorable.
The Rangers had fallen behind 2-0 in the second period, and would trail 2-1 after 40 minutes. Then Mike Rupp's second goal of the day (!) tied the game, and Brad Richards's goal gave the Rangers the lead for the first time. Some questionable refereeing followed — much of it going against the Rangers — and after the game, John Tortorella was so disgusted that he openly wondered whether NBC had gotten together with the refs to try to send the game into overtime. (Anyone care to guess how much he'll be fined for that?)
But conspiracy or no conspiracy, the network got its perfect ending when Ryan McDonagh covered the puck in the crease with 19.6 seconds remaining, thus giving the Flyers a penalty shot. (That call, as best we could tell, appeared to be the right one, by the way.) A note to those who may have watched the game, but don't follow the sport all that closely: Critical penalty shots late in the third period of a game are exceedingly rare outside of, like, Mighty Ducks movies. And so Henrik Lundqvist's save on Danny Briere would have been thrilling even if this game weren't being played on a rink built on a baseball diamond in front of 46,967 fans. But in the Winter Classic, such a moment provided a sufficiently crazy ending for a game with such hype surrounding it. NBC and HBO got a finish they only could have dreamed of, and you know what? So did Rangers fans.