Ranking the 8 Best NHL Outdoor Games

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2021

Ranking the 8 Best NHL Outdoor Games

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    When the temperatures drop and a new year beckons, you know it's time for another outdoor NHL game.

    Although the league held a couple of outdoor games in the 1950s, both matchups were exhibitions. It wasn't until 2003 that the NHL hosted a meaningful open-air matchup.

    Five years later, the NHL scheduled another one. And since then, outdoor games have become an annual tradition. Heck, it's to the point thatbetween the Winter Classic, Stadium Series, Heritage Classic and other eventsthe volume of games is a running joke.

    Nevertheless, we've watched a bunch of enjoyable, competitive open-air hockey over the last two decades. And heading into the 2022 Winter Classic, we're recalling the best of those outdoor games.

8. 2019 Stadium Series

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    The weather didn't totally cooperate on this night in late February 2019, but a light, steady rain hardly diminished the excitement of this rivalry matchup.

    Sidney Crosby struck first for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who seemed bound for a win at Lincoln Financial Fieldhome of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. In the third period, the Pens took a 3-1 lead on Evgeni Malkin's fortunate bounce off Flyers netminder Brian Elliott.

    But in the last 3:04 of regulation, the Flyers surged to force overtime. They narrowed the gap on James van Riemsdyk's power-play goal, then Jakub Voracek threw a bad-angle shot at Pens goalie Matt Murray and somehow found the net with 20 seconds left.

    In the extra session, Flyers star Claude Giroux weaved through Pittsburgh's defense and slipped the winner past Murray.

7. 2012 Winter Classic

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    Seven years earlier, however, the Flyers squandered a late lead.

    Philly hosted the 2012 Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park, which normally features the MLB's Philadelphia Phillies. The hometown crowd watched the Flyers jump ahead 2-0 on the New York Rangers thanks to Brayden Schenn's first career goal and Giroux's 18th tally of the season.

    But only 30 seconds after Giroux's goal, Rangers center Mike Rupp wristed home a shot with assists from Brandon Prust and John Mitchell. Early in the third period, Rupp added a second goal with helpers from both Prust and Mitchell again.

    Less than three minutes after Rupp's second, Brad Richards smacked home a rebound for the Rangers' go-ahead goal.

    And the drama wasn't over!

    Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped a shot, but Ryan McDonagh covered the puck and gifted the Flyers a penalty shot with 19.6 seconds remaining in regulation. Lundqvist answered the challenge, though, and stoned Daniel Briere for a 3-2 New York win.

6. 2009 Winter Classic

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    Do you like scoring? Sure hope so!

    In the second Winter Classic, the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks set a still-standing outdoor record of 10 goals. The mark has since been matched twice, but the NHL's original track meet happened in a showdown of Original Six teams at Wrigley Fieldthe iconic home of MLB's Chicago Cubs.

    Chicago zoomed out to a 3-1 lead through 20 minutes as Martin Havlat quickly registered a goal and two assists. The rest of the game belonged to rival Detroit, though.

    In the second period, Jiri Hudler scored twice before Pavel Datsyuk dragged the Red Wings to a 4-3 lead. Brian Rafalski and Brett Lebda added goals in the third period, giving Detroit a 6-3 advantage that Chicago only trimmed with 9.2 seconds remaining.

    Henrik Zetterberg totaled three assists for the Red Wings, who reached the Stanley Cup in this season and narrowly missed winning back-to-back championships.

5. 2003 Heritage Classic

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    This clash between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in November 2003 started it all.

    For the first time in NHL history, an outdoor venue hosted a regular-season game. Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton housed the thrilling victory for the Canadiens.

    Neither team scored in the first period, but Montreal needed only 39 seconds in the second period to break the ice. Richard Zednik holds the honor of that first-ever goal, and Yanic Perreault added a second to help the Canadiens leave the frame up 2-1.

    Montreal and Edmonton alternated goals in the closing period. Perreault tallied his second of the game, then Edmonton's Jarret Stoll made it 3-2. Zednik matched Perreault with a second goal, then the Oilers' Steve Staios brought the Canadiens' lead back to one.

    Montreal survived the last five minutesand a point-blank chance for Edmonton's Mike York with 20 seconds leftto win 4-3.

4. 2020 Winter Classic

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    Stay out of the penalty box, kids.

    During the 2020 Winter Classica showdown that featured 85,630 fans at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, making it the second-highest-attended game in NHL historyboth the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars put on a power-play clinic.

    Nashville took advantage of an early five-on-three and five-minute major to secure a two-goal edge in the opening period. Matt Duchene and Dante Fabbro each found the back of the net for the Preds, and Roman Josi assisted on both markers.

    Dallas could not beat Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne for nearly 39 minutes. But once it did, the floodgates opened.

    Blake Comeau scored late in the second period. Less than a minute into the third, Mattias Janmark deflected in a power-play goal. About four minutes later, Alexander Radulov capitalized on the man-advantage. And within 90 seconds of that, Andrej Sekera backhanded home a rebound to complete the Stars' 4-2 victory.

3. 2017 Centennial Classic

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    In celebration of the NHL's 100th season, the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs squared off at Toronto's multi-use BMO Field on New Year's Day in 2017.

    After a scoreless opening period, Detroit struck relatively early in the second frame. Zetterberg and Tomas Tatar set up rookie winger Anthony Mantha, who sizzled a shot past Toronto star Auston Matthews and netminder Frederik Andersen.

    However, the Leafs came out flying in the third. Four different players scored and propelled Toronto to a 4-1 margin.

    But then, Detroit engineered an incredible comeback. Jonathan Ericsson scored with 6:06 to play, and Dylan Larkin popped in a rebound with 1:46 left in regulation. Mantha capped the three-goal recovery on a rebound as just 1.1 seconds showed on the clock. Zetterberg notched his second career three-assist outdoor game.

    The elation soon vanished for Detroit, though. Toronto regrouped in overtime and found the winner on Matthews' second goal of the contest, knocking off the Wings 5-4.

2. 2014 Winter Classic

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    MLB and NFL venues are excellent picks for outdoor games. But for the largest attendance possible, heading to a college football stadium is the smartest move.

    That's exactly what happened in the 2014 Winter Classic.

    Best known as the Big House, Michigan Stadium is the University of Michigan football team's home field. And on this January day, more than 100,000 people flooded the streets of Ann Arbor like Wolverines fans do from September to November every fall.

    Oh, and the game was awesome, too. Unfortunately for Red Wings fans, they fell to the Maple Leafs in this matchup as would happen in the Centennial Classic exactly three years later.

    Both teams scored in the second and third periods, and overtime didn't provide a winner. The game headed to a shootout, where Detroit legend Pavel Datsyuk scored, but Toronto's Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak beat Jimmy Howard to hand the Leafs a 2-1 shootout edge for a memorable 3-2 win at the Big House.

1. 2008 Winter Classic

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    Sequels are rarely better than the original, right? It appears that sentiment also applies to outdoor games.

    New Year's Day in 2008 brought the first-ever Winter Classic, which has since become an annual tradition. For very understandable reasons, the only seasons in which the event didn't happen were 2013-14 (lockout) and 2020-21 (coronavirus pandemic).

    Sidney Crosby stole the show in this matchup with the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which ordinarily houses the NFL's Buffalo Bills. The showdown set a then-record with 71,217 fans.

    Almost immediately after the puck dropped, Crosby drove to the net and notched his 37th assist of the season. Colby Armstrong beat Buffalo's Ryan Miller for the 1-0 lead a mere 21 seconds into the game.

    Buffalo evened the score on Brian Campbell's second-period goal, and the contest headed to overtime and a shootout. While the Sabres struck first thanks to Ales Kotalik, Pittsburgh's Kris Letang soon answered to set up 20-year-old Sid the Kid's heroics.

    Crosby approached slowly, deked and beat Miller through the five-hole to quiet the partisan crowd in a 2-1 Penguins win.