There was something familiar about seeing the captain, wearing eye black, smiling as he lifted his arms to the heavens in celebration of a score as the crowd went wild at Heinz Field.
There was something foreign about it being Sidney Crosby instead of Ben Roethlisberger, the Penguins center having a memorable moment on the ice atop the home turf of the Steelers quarterback.
“I think being able to do it here — where I probably didn't have great memories of the last time playing here — I think it was just special at any point to play outside and score, but especially here and given what happened before,” Crosby said. “You're a little bit far away (from the fans), but you try to soak it up as much as you can and enjoy it. I've played in a few, and it hasn't worked out so when you finally get one, you try to soak it in.”
This was six years coming, Crosby scoring the first goal of the Stadium Series game in a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night. It was only the first period, but this beginning sure beat the ending of his previous performance inside this stadium.
That game, the 2011 Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals, saw Crosby skate off with a concussion after a blindside hit by David Steckel. It cost him 101 games in the prime of his career, at least one scoring title and, possibly, the Penguins a Stanley Cup championship.
The NHL brought outdoor hockey back to Pittsburgh on Saturday night, drawing a crowd of 67,318 that endured 36-degree weather at the opening faceoff, swirling winds and even snow flurries just 24 hours after an 111-year-old February record was broken with a 76-degree day.
“Anytime you play outside, there's something that brings you back. You play so many games outside as a kid on a pond or a lake. To be able to do it in the NHL, especially at home a couple of times, I think is pretty special,” Crosby said. “We definitely came in with the right mindset. You're trying to balance enjoying the moment and taking it all in and playing a game and being ready, so for guys who've gone through this before I think it helps.”
It wasn't quite the scene of the inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo, where Crosby scored the winner in a shootout amid snowflakes. That was the storybook setting befitting of Crosby's early career. This one perfectly captured the second chapter of his career, the post-concussion Crosby who leads the league in goals.
From the high slot, rookie winger Jake Guentzel drew defenders in by feigning a shot. Guentzel slid a pass to Crosby, who was drifting backward toward the goal line to the right of the net.
Crosby caught Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth down and wristed a shot past him for his 34th goal and 67th point of the season, a 1-0 lead at 11 minutes, 18 seconds of the first period.
“Jake does a great job of just keeping the puck alive. I'm in and around the net, and he kind of sells shot and puts it over,” Crosby said. “I just had to put it in the net. He kind of made the play. Great to get one outside here at home. It was a great feeling.”
Crosby nearly scored again with 51 seconds left in the second period, but it was waved off when Neuvirth backed into the net and knocked it off its moorings. Instead, a holding penalty was called on Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning.
“I think Sid played very well, and we followed him and we tried to play the same,” Penguins center Evgeni Malkin said. “It's a good win for us.”
A good win for the Penguins and a good game for Crosby, one that put distance between his darkest hour in hockey, one that allowed the Penguins captain to hear cheers in the Steelers' stadium.
“We're thrilled for him,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Playing here again probably brought back some memories that he'd like to forget. To have a night like tonight and have an opportunity to play in such an exciting venue and start the game off the way he did and score a goal for us, I'm sure probably helped him put that experience behind him and just move forward.
“I thought he had a solid game. I thought he played really well. His line was good all night long, and obviously he scores a huge goal for us.”