ANNAPOLIS, MD. — Those fireworks that explode and then explode a second time into smaller fireworks, they streaked the black sky with fiery webs of red, white and blue.
Hockey players were escorted by bagpipes to a pristine, windswept rink positioned on a 35,760-square-foot graphic of an aircraft carrier, itself situated in the centre of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
A smartly creased military marching band’s brass instruments sang and gleamed under four thick poles of football stadium lights as tall as you think heroes are when you’re a kid.
“U-S-A!” group chants popped up here and there, as did members of the national women’s team, gold medallions swaying form their necks.
Two Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets zinged overhead, one piloted by a former midshipman/goalie at the U.S. Naval Academy, and they shook a packed, bundled house like a windstorm just as “The Star-Spangled Banner” hit its final note and the 500 service members lining the rink’s perimeter lowered their salutes.
It was National Anthem Day, after all.
“If you’re a North American, this one’s more special just because of the men and women that look after you and give you all the privileges you have in your life by keeping you safe and living in a democracy,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said.
“You think about heroes, there’s lots of different heroes in your lifetime. But people that put themselves in harm’s way to look after you, those are the heroes. So, I think that’s important while we’re here we understand that and recognize that.”
And so it was that sometime after Team USA’s Olympic-gold-medal-winning skip John Shuster delivered the ceremonial puck by curling a rock from the high slot smack on the centre-ice button and the Toronto Maple Leafs were photographed in custom uniforms whiter than the ice, hockey happened. And the vast majority of it happened in the Leafs’ end.
The Washington Capitals torpedoed their visitors 5-2 at Saturday’s Stadium Series showdown between last spring’s playoff foes and remain undefeated (3-0) in the out-of-doors.
“It doesn’t matter that the ice is bad. The atmosphere is unbelievable,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “You have energy from the fans and you go and play.”
Its nautical theme aside, the NHL’s 25th outdoor regular-season game was like all the others in that it wasn’t like all the others.
High-alert winds prevented either side from practising on the Annapolis ice Friday and Saturday morning, so there was no time for players to acclimatize themselves with the dead boards, hard ice or skewed sightlines.
When (finally) reasonable 35 km/h gusts blew the fireworks smoke to Baltimore and the puck dropped on a 6 degrees Celsius night, Toronto starter Frederik Andersen appeared to be the elements greatest victim.
There was much pre-game talk among players and coaches of keeping things simple, of wading into the unusual setting to get a feel first. Frequently these outdoor games have been light on scoring.
But once Leafs’ defenceman Travis Dermott took the game’s first penalty, Washington’s lethal power play pounced.
Evgeny Kuznetsov slammed home a rebound, setting off a second round of pyrotechnics. Crease-crashing Zach Hyman evened the score 90 seconds later, but once Ovechkin answered back 59 seconds after that, Washington never looked back.
Ovechkin’s 40th of the year, a high-glove snipe on Andersen from the slot, gave him 598 on the career. Fun fact: Ovie has now scored an NHL goal in 38 different venues.
All the Capitals’ big boys got in on the fun, delighting the thousands who pulled their replica sweaters over top of their winter coats.
Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson each had themselves three-point games. Goaltender Braden Holtby limited the damage after a shaky February.
By the time Jakub Vrana scored the home side’s fifth goal on its 25th shot, Babcock yanked Andersen for the first time all season on account of poor performance.
With Curtis McElhinney in net, the Leafs stopped the bleeding, but it was too late for a comeback.
No. Literally, those sky-scraping stadium lights — all but a few bulbs — lost power when the switch-sides horn sounded at the 10:00 mark of the third period, forcing snack-fetching fans to locate their seats only by the glow of the Leafs’ uniforms.
The break dragged long enough that NBC was forced to push its viewers to NBCSN to catch the conclusion of the prime-time game.
When power was restored after a 16-minute delay and the Capitals secured victory, the locals — the target audience for these NHL mega-spectacles — left happier if a little colder than they arrived. That feeling was shared by the players.
“When you’re skating on a pond or you’re skating outside,” said Capitals winger T.J. Oshie, one of the game’s few outdoors rookies, “it turns into pure joy and fun.”