CHICAGO – The atmosphere was electric. Bundled-up fans got a chance to extend their New Year’s Eve parties and watch hockey in a venerable stadium where baseball usually fills the seats.
If the setting was different, the results were the same Thursday. The Red Wings beat the Chicago Blackhawks again — in the 701st regular-season meeting between the two clubs — this time out in the cold at Wrigley Field in the Winter Classic.
Players from both sides agreed on two things following Detroit’s 6-4 comeback victory: The weather and the condition of the ice had little or no bearing on the result, and the overall experience was a blast.
“It exceeded my expectations,” said Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, who returned after missing two games with a sore ankle. “I don’t think the wind or playing outdoors bothered either team.”
Temperature at faceoff on an overcast day was a very bearable 32 degrees, even though a wind blowing at 18 mph made it a bundle-up afternoon for 40,818 fans at the second oldest baseball park in the major leagues.
“Holy Cow. It’s Cold,” read one sign, using the longtime catch phrase of the late Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray.
Pavel Datsyuk skated through two defenders for a go-ahead score in a three-goal second period, and the Red Wings scored twice in a 17-second span of the third to complete the comeback.
“I kind of had my mouth open in the beginning,” said Detroit’s Jiri Hudler, who had two goals in the second period to tie the game. “We were all looking at each other during the anthem – ‘Wow, this is awesome.”
The teams used the same locker rooms that the Cubs (Blackhawks) and visitors (Red Wings) use during the baseball season. The players trudged on covered skates through tunnels, up and down steps and across a tarp-like carpet to the rink. The Red Wings’ coaching staff kept their heads warm with fedoras.
Martin Havlat had a goal and two assists to help the Blackhawks go up 3-1 after one period. But the Red Wings showed why they are the defending Stanley Cup champions, rallying to beat the Blackhawks for the fourth straight time this season and second time in less than 48 hours.
“They are the best team in the world. They are a team that can just take over when they want to,” Chicago’s Patrick Kane said.
Havlat also said the weather wasn’t much of a factor in the disappointing loss. The Red Wings had beaten Chicago 4-0 on Tuesday night in Detroit.
“It was not too bad,” he said. “You could feel it on your toes in the skates, but we were moving and it was pretty warm on the benches.”
Brian Rafalski scored on a power play 3:07 into the third period for a 5-3 lead. Seventeen seconds later, Brett Lebda’s shot from between the circles appeared to go over Huet, but officials needed a video review to determine that it was a goal. After it was ruled good, Huet was pulled for Nikolai Khabibulin.
Video screens in right and left fields were set up to help fans who couldn’t follow the puck from the lower seats. Most didn’t necessarily need them – they stood up behind the two dugouts to see over the boards. And stay warm at the same time.
Even though most of the snow in Chicago had melted last week, the entire field was covered by the white stuff – some of it compliments of a snowmaking machine.
“It was a cool feeling seeing 45,000 fans screaming and yelling,” Kane said. “The atmosphere was really unreal.”
Detroit goaltender Ty Conklin played in his third outdoor NHL game. He was the winner last year in the initial Winter Classic when the Penguins beat the Sabres 2-1 in a shootout at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., before an NHL-record 71,217 fans.
He was also in net for the Oilers when they faced Montreal in 2003 before 57,167 fans outdoors in Edmonton.
“I count myself very lucky. There’s not a guy in this league who wouldn’t like to play in these games,” Conklin said. “I’ve had the opportunity to play in three of them.”
The game Thursday was halted momentarily in the first period for minor ice repair that took less than a minute to complete. But there appeared to be no major problems with the surface, part of a two-week long project to turn a baseball park into a hockey venue.
“I think the weather conditions were ideal. The ice was really good. It was probably better than it is in some of our rinks,” commissioner Gary Bettman said, adding he doesn’t have a location right now for next year’s Winter Classic.
If a player happened to step out the back of the penalty box, he would nearly land on the far side of the pitcher’s mound. The goals ran from the first base line to the third base line.
The ancient scoreboard at Wrigley Field – which is still hand operated for many of the baseball operations – featured the day’s matchup of NHL games. There was also a temporary scoreboard below the big one, set up just for hockey.
Several Red Wings, including Conklin, entertained fans in the concourse about 90 minutes before the game by kicking and heading a soccer ball to each other.
Dan Cleary, whose hard check in Tuesday night’s game at Detroit caused a leg injury to Blackhawks star Kane, was driven into the Chicago bench early in the game on a hit from Brent Seabrook.
Kris Versteeg scored on a power play rebound to give the Hawks an early 1-0 lead.
Detroit evened it as a power play was winding down when Henrik Zetterberg went behind the net and fed Mikael Samuelsson. But minutes later, on yet another power play, Versteeg made a nice backhanded pass to Havlat, who shot it past Conklin for a 2-1 lead.
Chicago’s third goal of the opening period came from Ben Eager with 42 seconds to go. He went behind the goal, withstood a hit from Detroit’s Andreas Lilja and then reversed his direction before beating Conklin to make it 3-1.
Less than two minutes into the second period, Hudler got a rebound goal, and the Red Wings tied it when Hudler scored again on a rebound one second after a power play for Detroit ended.
GAME NOTES: Involved in pre-game ceremonies were former Cubs Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams, along with ex-Blackhawks Bobby Hull, Denis Savard, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito and former Red Wings’ star Ted Lindsay. … Duncan Keith scored the Blackhawks’ final goal on a power play with 10 seconds left. … Detroit had a 43-37 advantage in shots.