The NHL’s outdoor games have become a bit of a sore spot for fans of late.
What once seemed a brilliant, novel idea has become painfully routine, with some feeling too many outdoor games have dotted the schedule over the past decade. But even with that potential overkill, there’s still something about them.
The lustre’s worn off, sure, but there’s still a certain magic to the spectacle when done right, even if it’s done too often.
There’s a good chance that element will be there Wednesday afternoon, with the 2020 iteration in Dallas set to draw the second-largest regular-season crowd up to this point, putting Texas’ love of hockey on display.
But while the setting and the raucous crowd will add to the mix, it’s the players who will determine just how magical the night ends up — the spectacle is only brought to life by marquee in-game moments, by players stepping up and delivering those much-needed theatrics.
How have the events fared on that front so far? We looked back at every outdoor game up to this point to rank the 10 best individual performances.
10. Jakub Voracek, 2019 Stadium Series
The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins faced off at Lincoln Financial Field in Philly earlier this year, re-igniting the rivalry for the Pennsylvanian fans in what the league dubbed the ‘Stadium Series.’
While the big boys all got in on the action — with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both tallying for Pittsburgh and Claude Giroux sniping the winner in overtime — it was Jakub Voracek emerging as the driving force for the Flyers all game long.
The veteran set up the Flyers’ first goal early in the tilt, tying the game after No. 87 tallied, set up another goal in the latter half of the third period to cut a 3-1 Penguins lead to 3-2, and finally scored the tying goal with 20 seconds left in the game, sending the affair to extra time.
9. Jonathan Bernier, 2014 Winter Classic
In one of the all-time great outdoor tilts, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings met at Michigan Stadium in front of a record 105,491 fans for the 2014 Winter Classic — a long-awaited event after an outdoor game-less lockout year.
Again, the better-known names got themselves involved — James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Tyler Bozak all recording points for Toronto, and Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Zetterberg chipping in for Detroit — but it was the Leafs’ netminder who ended up stealing the show.
With the two clubs playing out a nail-biter, Jonathan Bernier stood tall in the cage to the tune of a 41-save performance, turning aside six from Zetterberg alone, with other talents like Pavel Datsyuk, Alfredsson and Tomas Tatar all in the mix for that Red Wings squad as well.
With the game progressing to a shootout, Bernier was further thrust into the spotlight. A key save on an attempt from Tatar teed up Bozak to score the shootout winner, clinching a 3-2 Leafs win.
8. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, 2017 NHL 100 Classic
In one of the more odd, yet intriguing, outdoor tilts, the Ottawa Senators met the Montreal Canadiens in Ottawa for a one-off NHL 100 Classic at TD Place Stadium.
Trudging through a scoreless first period with the fans on edge for a goal, it was hometown boy Jean-Gabriel Pageau deflecting in an Erik Karlsson shot for the first goal of the game, igniting the 33,959 in attendance.
Full marks for theatrics go to Pageau, given his roots in the city, the moment, and the crowd champing at the bit for some offence.
With the Canadiens only launching 28 shots on net and Ottawa holding on for a 3-0 win, Pageau’s early marker held up as the game-winner.
7. Vladimir Tarasenko, 2017 Winter Classic
The St. Louis Blues earned their first outdoor game in 2017, and it came against the outdoor classic veterans, the Chicago Blackhawks.
With love for the outdoor events beginning to wane by this time, the opening two periods didn’t offer much in the way of excitement either. Each club tallied a goal apiece — Michal Kempny for Chicago, Patrik Berglund for St. Louis — setting up a 1-1 third period.
Then, Vladimir Tarasenko took over, as he does.
The Russian phenom sniped two goals in the third to swap that 1-1 tie for a 3-1 lead, before Alexander Steen added an empty-net goal to seal the win.
6. Mark Letestu, 2016 Heritage Classic
While the Winter Classic sometimes gets more hype, the all-Canadian Heritage Classics have offered up some of the more intriguing matchups over the years.
The 2016 iteration saw the Edmonton Oilers take on the Winnipeg Jets, pitting offensive phenoms like Connor McDavid and Patrik Laine against one another. Even past those two, the offensive potential was great, with names like Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler thrown into the mix.
The three goal-scorers in the eventual 3-0 Oilers win? Mark Letestu, Darnell Nurse, and Zack Kassian.
But it was Letestu’s that held up as the best of the game, with the veteran checking all the boxes on his way to the cage: shorthanded, on a breakaway, for the eventual game-winner.
5. All of the Capitals, 2018 Stadium Series
The Maple Leafs got another memorable outdoor tilt in 2018, taking on the Washington Capitals at Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for one of the league’s Stadium Series games.
A 5-2 Capitals victory gave the 29,516 in the crowd plenty to cheer for. Zach Hyman and Nazem Kadri earned Toronto’s two tallies, while five different Caps put pucks in the net for Washington en route to a one-sided win over the blue and white.
But three Capitals players in particular earn props for their dominant performances in this one, as defender John Carlson, centre Evgeny Kuznetsov and centre Nicklas Backstrom each finished with a goal and two assists to their names.
Backstrom gets the slight edge as his goal wound up as the game-winner.
4. Miikka Kiprusoff, 2011 Heritage Classic
The second-ever Heritage Classic came in 2011, pitting Calgary Flames vs. the Canadiens at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium.
It brought a much-needed return to the outdoors for Canadian clubs, with the prior four events featuring only American teams and cities.
Though the game itself wasn’t the most thrilling — a 4-0 shellacking by the Flames that saw goals from Alex Tanguay, Anton Babchuk and Rene Bourque (twice) — it was the play in the hometown net that was most memorable.
It just so happened that the 2011 Classic came in one of the final seasons of the career of Miikka Kiprusoff, the netminder who rose to become an all-time legend in Calgary, and unquestionably the best at his position the city’s ever seen.
At age 34, the Flames netminding stalwart stood tall to shut down the likes of Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Michael Cammalleri and P.K. Subban and earn a 39-save shutout — good for first-star-of-the-night honours, and the eternal love of the Flames faithful.
3. Jiri Hudler, 2009 Winter Classic
Meeting in Chicago for one of the higher-scoring tilts in Winter Classic history, the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings battled to a 6-4 finish at Wrigley Field.
There’s a theme that tends to come out as you look back on more and more of these events, an understanding of why they matter to those involved. It’s often not about the biggest names on the ice — rather, the chaos and the spectacle breeds the opportunity for others to step up and make their name.
That was the case in ’09, as with stacked rosters on both sides — Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, and on and on — it was Jiri Hudler emerging as the hero of the night.
After Chicago opened up a 3-1 lead in the first, it was the then-25-year-old Hudler who scored twice in the second to level the match at 3-3 midway through the tilt. He’d later set up a Brian Rafalski goal that stood as the eventual game-winner.
2. Auston Matthews, 2017 NHL Centennial Classic
While the names buried lower on the depth chart have often risen to the occasion when the game’s been taken outdoors, some of the best moments from this slate of outdoor theatrics have come when the stars have stepped up for key moments.
That was the case in 2017 when the Leafs and Red Wings took part in the league’s Centennial Classic in front of 40,148 at BMO Field.
A rookie sniper by the name of Auston Matthews was midway through playing out the beginning of his impressive career, and a chance to perform on the outdoor stage simply brought another opportunity for him to flex the same type of game-changing offensive flair he’d showed in his NHL debut earlier that season.
The young American didn’t disappoint. With his teammates building up an early lead, Matthews tallied his first of the night midway through the third to take the Leafs to 4-1. An onslaught from the opposition wiped out that lead, as three late goals set up a 4-4 overtime in the elements.
And then Matthews did what he does, potting the game-winner in overtime, and the 20th of his eventual 40 goals that year.
1. Sidney Crosby, 2008 Winter Classic
Even after more than a decade of outdoor tilts, few — if any — have managed to outdo the early iterations.
Most would agree the best so far came in 2008, when Sidney Crosby’s Penguins met the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.
And as is often the case, it was No. 87 who stole the night.
Setting up a goal from Colby Armstrong early on and watching it nullified from a Sabres reply courtesy of Brian Campbell, Crosby watched the match descend into overtime and ultimately, after no final answer came, into a shootout.
With the snow coming down, piling up on the ice and sapping any room for flashy displays, the Cole Harbour native set off towards the Sabres cage and authored one of the most memorable moments of his career, whipping a shootout past Ryan Miller to clinch the win for Pittsburgh.
Any criticisms of the effort to take the game outdoors fall short in the face of that now age-old clip — a classic among Classics, and the most poignant moment in the history of the NHL outdoor schedule.