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Looking back on Penguins Winter Classic history

This has been a game of extreme highs and lows for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins
Marc-Andre Fleury defends the net while Kris Letang controls the puck against the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field during the 2011 Winter Classic on January 1, 2011.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The 2023 NHL Winter Classic, where the Penguins will take on the Boston Bruins on January 2, will mark the third time the Penguins have played in a Winter Classic.

Those past two have brought extreme highs— and horrible lows— to the Penguins.

Take the 2008 Winter Classic, which was the first of its kind in NHL history. The Penguins met the Buffalo Sabres at Bills’ Highmark Stadium (then Ralph Wilson Stadium) on New Year’s day in driving snow.

Despite the cold, a crowd of 71,217 packed the stadium. Until 2014, when the Detroit Red Wings broke the standard, it was the best-attended game in NHL history.

Visiting Pittsburgh fans who braved the pouring snow were rewarded just moments after puck drop. Sidney Crosby shouldered his way up the left side and put the puck on net, where Colby Armstrong put the rebound past Ryan Miller’s reaching glove to score the first goal in NHL Winter Classic history just 21 seconds into the game.

In the second period, the Penguins gave Brian Campbell a bit too much time and space alone on the right circle, and he paid them back by whipping a shot past Ty Conklin and tying the game.

Miller and Conklin had had enough. As the snow continued to sheet down— so heavily the game had to be paused halfway through the third period, and again halfway through overtime, so the Zamboni could clear the rink— they shut down players for the rest of regulation and the extra frame, sending the Sabres and Pens to a shootout.

Buffalo’s Ales Kotalik beat Conklin on the first shot, but Conklin caught the Sabres’ second attempt before Kris Letang got the puck past Miller to even out the shootout.

Then the Sabres missed their third attempt, setting the stage for the final Penguins shooter, captain Sidney Crosby, to play hero.

With snow puffing away from the puck with every move of his stick, Crosby enticed Miller into opening the pads before slipping the puck through the five hole and into the back of the net, sealing a 2-1 win and making the game an instant Penguins classic.

The Penguins’ next appearance in a Winter Classic, when they arrived at Pittsburgh’s own Heinz Field to face their budding rivals from Washington D.C. on January 1, 2011, could not have gone more differently.

It was the Penguins’ first appearance in, and the beginning of the bad luck from, the baby-blue alternate sweaters.

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin at the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Things started out well. Forecasted rain never came, and two minutes into the second period, Kris Letang fed Evgeni Malkin for a breakaway. Malkin loped down the ice and buried the puck between Semyon Varlamov’s pads.

The Capitals tied the game on a power play four minutes later, then gained their first lead of the game when future Penguin Eric Fehr beat Marc-Andre Fleury with five minutes remaining in the period.

Then, with just moments remaining in the second, David Steckel laid the hit that changed the course of Sidney Crosby’s career.

The shoulder he laid into Crosby’s head while Crosby was looking the other direction left the Penguins’ captain doubled over in pain as the buzzer sounded to end the period.

Crosby would appear in just one more game that season. It would be 11 months before he played again.

The Penguins went on to lose the game to the Capitals, 3-1.

Now, the Penguins are set for their third trip to the Winter Classic— their first in 11 years— on Monday. Just three players (Crosby, Malkin and Letang— although Letang is questionable to play with an unspecified lower-body injury) remain on the roster from the 2011 game.

The first two games became major moments in Penguins lore— one for battling through snowdrifts to win, and the other for an injurious loss that changed the course of franchise history. Maybe we’ll break the pattern and see a nice, normal win this January 2.