Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, left, celebrates his goal with Scott Wilson during the first period of an NHL Stadium Series hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The pomp. The circumstance. The spectacle. Sidney Crosby’s used to all of it. So the message the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and the rest of the veterans sent to their teammates making their first appearances in an NHL Stadium Series game was pretty simple.
Yeah, this is pretty cool. Just don’t forget to do your job.
“You need to understand as much as you want to take it all, (these are) important points and playing Philadelphia, it’s going to be an intense game,” Crosby said.
One that allowed Crosby to close one chapter in his career while inching closer to first-place Washington in the process. Crosby picked up his league-leading 34th goal in the same venue where his career took an abrupt turn five years ago as the Penguins pulled away late for a 4-2 victory Saturday night at blustery Heinz Field.
The two-time MVP was at the peak of his powers and the league’s leading scorer heading into the 2011 Winter Classic when a hit to the head by Washington’s Dave Steckel changed the arc of Crosby’s career. He spent the better part of two calendar years recovering, though he hardly wanted to talk about it in his return to Heinz Field, saying he simply hoped for a better ending this time around.
“I think it was just special at any point to be able to play outside and score, but especially here and given what happened before,” Crosby said.
Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino and Chad Ruhwedel also scored for Pittsburgh, which thrilled the capacity crowd at the home of the NFL’s Steelers by capitalizing on some shaky goaltending by Michal Neuvirth. Jake Guentzel picked up two assists while Matt Murray made 35 saves as the Penguins drew within five points of Metropolitan Division-leading Washington.
Jakub Voracek and Shayne Gostisbehere scored for Philadelphia, but Neuvirth stopped just 25 of 29 shots as the Flyers dropped to 0-3 in outdoor games. Even worse, Philadelphia failed to pick up any ground as it tries to stay within shouting distance of one of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference.
“Obviously that stretch we’re on right now, it’s very difficult,” Flyers defenseman Mark Streit said. “We’ve got to turn the corner here, move forward and win hockey games. There’s no time left.”
Despite a downright tropical week that saw temperatures soar into the mid-70s by Friday afternoon — more suitable for some pickup street hockey than a sheet of ice in the middle of an NFL stadium — Mother Nature dished out a pretty timely assist to league organizers hours before the puck dropped. A cold front fueled arrived late Saturday afternoon, and by the time Crosby and Claude Giroux stood across from one another for the opening faceoff, it was a seasonable 36 degrees with a hint of snow.
The lone complication didn’t come from warmth but the wind. Gusts at ice level became so disruptive the NHL decided to have the teams switch sides midway through the third period in an effort to even out the amount of time the teams shot in each direction.
“The first period was tough, not going to lie,” Voracek said. “A little bit wind in your face. But in the end it evened out, 30 minutes each way. It was fun.”
While appreciative of the chance to play on such a unique stage — particularly one framed by a replica of one of the famous “Three Sister” bridges that span the adjacent Allegheny River — the teams stressed the need to focus on the stakes and not the festival-like atmosphere.
It was, thanks in no small part to Crosby’s brilliance. He helped the Penguins shake off a slow start by working himself free at the right circle and taking a slick feed from Guentzel and firing it into the open net 11:18 into the first to give Pittsburgh the lead. Bonino doubled the advantage 6:44 into the second when he drilled a slap shot by Neuvirth on the power play.
The Flyers drew within one just past the midway point when Voracek muscled his way from the corner to the front net and slipped it by Murray.
No matter. Cullen picked up his 10th of the season when he stuffed his own rebound by Neuvirth 1:50 into the third and while Gostisbehere’s slap shot from the point 6:48 into the third gave Philadelphia life, Ruhwedel’s shot from the point threaded its way through a sea of bodies to give the Penguins all the breathing room they’d need.
NOTES: Pittsburgh went 1 for 5 on the power play. The Flyers were 1 for 4. … Pittsburgh D Ron Hainsey, acquired in a trade with Carolina on Thursday, played 21:08 minutes in his debut. … Penguins D Kris Letang did not play due to an upper-body injury. … Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown served as the pregame emcee, introducing the Penguins to the capacity crowd. … The Penguins also played a video montage of team highlights set to the song “Renegade” by Styx, a staple at Steeler games. … Attendance was 67,318.
Flyers: Host Colorado on Tuesday. Philadelphia beat the Avalanche 4-3 in the first meeting on Dec. 14.
Penguins: Begin a road-heavy portion of their schedule in Dallas on Tuesday. Pittsburgh plays seven of its next nine away from PPG Paints Arena.