Ann Arbor, Michigan more than doubled in population on New Year’s Day as the NHL took over Michigan Stadium in its sixth Winter Classic. In doing so, the Big House set an all-time hockey attendance record. The estimated crowd of 105,500 obliterates the previous NHL record of 71,217 at Ralph Wilson Stadium outside of Buffalo six years ago and figures to edge the all-hockey record of 104,173 held by a December 2010 game also at Michigan Stadium between Michigan and Michigan State game.
But the crowd, which departed disappointed on a shootout victory for Toronto, played second fiddle to the weather in affecting play. More so than temperatures in the low teens, snow, falling at an inch per half hour at times, periodically stopped play and constantly slowed it. A team of human snowplows periodically removed the white fluff accumulating on the playing surface. But before the shovels went to work on the snow, the snow went to work on the puck. The snow made NHL slap shots appear as high school wrist shots to goalies.
The game would start as a defensive struggle. Frustrations mounted early. Justin Abdelkater’s crosscheck on Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf, who signed a seven-year $50 million extension prior to the game, downed Detroit a man for two minutes in the first period. But the home team’s penalty killing negated the advantage. Later, after Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul put the wood to Patrick Eaves, Maple Leafs captain Phaneauf wasn’t satisfied and exacted retribution of a more personal sort on Abdelkater. Still, neither team grabbed the opportunity to put the puck in the net.
The chippiness ultimately impacted the scoreboard. When the Maple Leafs captain, involved as perpetrator and victim in so much of the first period’s illegal stick play, skated to the bench after appearing to take stick to the head, the awkward transition offered Detroit their best scoring opportunity of the contest. On a Detroit two-on-one, Henrik Zetterberg set up Brendan Smith at 6:46 of the second period for a Red Wings goal deflected into the net by Smith’s skate.
After some roughness in front of the Maple Leafs net seconds after the ensuing face off, Toronto regrouped for a game-tying goal when James van Reimsdyk, who played hockey in high school in Ann Arbor, baseball-batted the puck out of the air to score with 38 seconds remaining in the second frame. The Michigan Stadium crowd erupted for the Michigan State standout.
In the third period, Tyler Bozak put the Maple Leafs up after a Phaneuf assist at the 5:34 mark. Ten minutes later, Brendan Smith set up Justin Abdelkater for a backhanded goal that got past goalie Jonathan Bernier, who ultimately stopped 41 of 43 shots, to stalemate the game.
The best scoring opportunity of the five-minute overtime came on a Henrik Zetterberg breakaway thwarted by a horn at the halfway point dictating that the teams switch side for the second half of the outdoor game’s extra frame. The standstill resulted in a shootout.
Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul traded scores in the shootout before Tyler Bozak ended the impasse in the favor of the Maple Leafs.
Outdoor games, which have proved a boon to the NHL in TV ratings as much as gate receipts, continue with a January 25 matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks at Dodger Stadium, a Rangers-Devils game the following day at Yankee Stadium, a Rangers-Islanders game at the same venue three days later, a Black Hawks-Rangers matchup at Soldier Field on March 1, and the NHL Heritage Classic the next day at Vancouver’s BC Place between the Canucks and Senators.