Today's much-anticipated Winter Classic matchup between the Bruins and Flyers at Fenway Park was not supposed to be about a game, but the game, an annual showcase for the sport of hockey itself.
But with a glance at the unfamiliar standings posted on the Green Monster, where the likes of Buffalo and Montreal and Ottawa replaced the familiar summer residents New York, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore, the reminder came that the outcome mattered, that a meaningful National Hockey League game would be played.
With a flick of the wrist, Bruins forward Marco Sturm turned the Winter Classic into an instant classic, ensuring that the fortunate 38,112 in attendance -- not to mention the giddy grown men on the bench -- would savor victory as much as the event itself.
Sturm took a pass from Patrice Bergeron and quickly flipped the puck past Flyers goalie Michael Leighton at 1:57 of overtime, helping the Bruins cap a pitch- and picture-perfect day at Fenway Park with a 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.
"When Bergy had the puck, I saw two guys go at him a little bit, and I just tried to go to the net," Sturm said. "I think he had Z [Zdeno Chara] open a little bit, too, but he made a nice play for a tip in."
With the victory, the Bruins became the first home team ever to win the Winter Classic, the NHL's fledgling but already wildly popular New Year's Day tradition that aired for the third straight year on NBC. The meaning of the moment to the players became as clear as the Fenway ice when, after Sturm's walk-off goal, they spilled onto the ice in a celebration reminiscent of a Game 7 victory.
"Marco scored that winner, and it was one of the most incredible feelings I can remember," said Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, who stopped 25 shots.
Sturm's team-best 14th goal capped a Bruins' rally that for the majority of the game seemed unlikely to develop, their offense stuck in neutral despite relatively ideal conditions for outdoor hockey. The temperatures hovered near 40 degrees -- the highest for any of the Winter Classics so far. And while players such as the Bruins' Chara wore eye-black in anticipation of glare, the steel-gray sky rendered such preparations unnecessary.
The Bruins struggled to create legitimate scoring opportunities for much of the afternoon -- they managed 15 mostly uninspiring shots through the first two periods -- but finally broke through at the 17:42 mark of the third period when former Flyer Mark Recchi tipped a Derek Morris shot past Leighton for a power-play score, tying it at 1.
The score ended Leighton's shutout streak at 1:54:07. It was the 41-year-old Recchi's ninth goal of the season and 553d of his career. A retrospective of Recchi's career highlights might reveal that roughly 500 of them have come in a similar manner.
''We really wanted to accomplish something here, we wanted to have a big win," said Recchi when asked where the goal ranks among the highlights of his 22-season career. "Derek made a heck of a play there. I was in my spot, and fortunate to bank it in. It's a pretty cool experience today, and definitely something I'll never forget."
The Flyers' goal came on an inexcusable mental lapse by Thomas in the second period. Thomas, distracted by Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell, took an ill-timed opportunity to get in a shot on the Flyers' pest, cross-checking him just as Philadelphia defenseman Danny Syvret launched a long-distance shot. As Thomas lunged at Hartnell, the puck zipped past the unknowing goalie and found the back of the net. Syvret's goal, which came at the 4:42 mark, was the first of his 43-game NHL career.
After the game, Thomas was quick to admit his emotions got the best of him, explaining that Hartnell ran him over while he was making a save and left him in a dangerous position moments earlier.
"I ended up in a vulnerable position where the guy ended up taking a slap shot and I'm laying flat on the ice," Thomas said. "Thank goodness it was down toward my pads, because if it was up toward my head or neck area, I have no way to protect myself. That made me mad when he came that close. I retaliated but I just happened to be retaliating at the same time someone else was shooting. Obviously, I didn't realize that at the time and that's what happened."
Naturally, he was appreciative when Recchi -- and eventually, Sturm -- took him off the hook, helping the Bruins (21-12-7, 49 points) pick up two points to pull to within three of division-leading Buffalo.
"You could feel the energy when we tied it up with two minutes left," said Thomas, whose eventful day included confirmation that he has been named to the US Olympic hockey team. "And at that point, I was very grateful to tie the game, because the goal was basically because I lost my cool and wasn't following the puck. So when we tied it up, it was very exciting. But I wanted to take it that one step further, I think everybody on our bench wanted it so bad."
Until Recchi's timely tally, it appeared Syvret's goal would stand up. The most eventful action otherwise in the first two periods came when the Bruins' Shawn Thornton and the Flyers' Dan Carcillo squared off at the 12:01 mark of the first. The affable Thornton, who hinted this week that he was intrigued by the chance to be involved in the first fight in Winter Classic history, didn't have the bout go the way he'd hoped. He wound up on the receiving end of a vicious uppercut by Carcillo, who wears a mustache in homage to the famed "Broad Street Bullies" Philadelphia squads of the '70s and did the likes of Dave Schultz proud this time around.
Though the play was not unexpectedly uneven on the outdoor surface, the event lived up to the hype long before the outcome was determined. The nostalgic tone was obvious but not overbearing, the warm sentiments for the cool game elegantly presented. It was the ideal scene and tone to jostle those pond-hockey memories. A dusting of snow would have completed the picture-perfect winter postcard, but the week-long fears of rain or heavy snow were unfounded. It was logical to conclude that Mother Nature must be a hockey fan.
Helping to complete the scene, the head coaches each wore a varsity jacket and Fedora; Claude Julien's made him look like he just stepped out of the team photo of the 1935 Montreal Maroons. Bobby Orr, who received a raucous and heartfelt ovation rivaling that given to Dave Roberts during the Red Sox' Opening Day 2005 ring ceremony, offered every Bruin a pat on the back on the bench before he met Flyers honorary captain Bobby Clarke at center ice for the ceremonial dropping of the puck. It would have surprised few in attendance if some old familiar chippiness ensued between the '70s rivals.
The early arriving crowd, with a remarkable number of them adorned in brand-new commemorative jerseys, found their seats early. Those fans in the ritzy baseball seats near the dugouts stood for much of the game to see the action; for this sport, the grandstand provided a better view. Meanwhile, on Yawkey Way, the sights and smells were familiar. Anyone up for a sausage (onions and peppers optional) at 9:30 a.m. had some options. Certainly not the most appealing breakfast for many of us on New Year's Day.
Another sight was a bit surreal, even if you expected it was coming: the red and white jerseys and t-shirts of summer have given way to the black and gold sweaters more commonly seen around Causeway Street this time of year. It was a pleasant reminder that the Bruins have perhaps the most loyal core of fans in the city.
And at the end of the day, just as the NHL had hoped, the day at Fenway would prove as fulfilling and memorable for all involved as a childhood skate on the neighborhood pond.
"Just this whole day, overall, this will go down as one of the most memorable days of my life, of my career," said Thomas. "Between winning, and the way that we won, and being named to the US Olympic team, I mean, it's my oldest goal, I've been waiting 30 years for this."