CHICAGO -- The snow was heavy but the mood was light. At least it was on the Chicago Blackhawks' bench during their 5-1 Stadium Series victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Though the conditions at Soldier Field were adverse to an optimum level of play, the hometown players seemed to truly enjoy the experience.
The defending Stanley Cup champions were a skating cliché when it comes to outdoor hockey. It really was like going back to the ponds and flooded yards of their childhoods.
"I think everyone went back to when they were kids," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said of battling the elements. "The stage couldn't have been any better for anybody. How hard it was snowing right off the bat, it was crazy conditions, but it was like everyone felt like they were going out and playing in the snow."
It's easier to feel that way after a win, of course, especially one so thorough.
It all started with the national anthem and the Blackhawks' home tradition of fans cheering through the entire song, only with about 40,000 more fans involved than normal. The smiles on the Chicago players' faces could be seen from the top deck of the vast NFL stadium.
That enthusiasm carried over into a first period that was continually halted by massive shoveling sessions to try to keep up with the quickly accumulating snow.
As the snow reached near blinding levels in the first period, Patrick Sharp wondered if his goal at 15:35 of the opening period would be the only one scored that night.
"I honestly thought that was the game, 1-0, the way the conditions were," the Blackhawks sniper said.
After putting a perfect shot off the far post and into the net, Sharp took a giant leap into Jonathan Toews who set up the goal with a pass from behind the net. It was the kind of celebration you might see from a 10-year-old playing a spirited game at the local pond.
"It honestly did feel like we were just playing shinny hockey in the backyard," Toews said. "We were playing smart in our own end like we normally would, but we were making plays. We had a lot of fun going out there and playing."
Even though two points were on the line, the conditions made it so that game-planning was rather pointless.
"There was no real systems or structures to our game," Sharp said. "We were just slapping the puck around and having fun doing it."
Sometimes when the players on either side were slapping the puck around, it would get buried in a pile of snow.
Similar to the first Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008 and the most recent one in Ann Arbor, Mich., the snow was a major factor in the game. As much as it slowed the puck down, however, it couldn't seem to slow down the Blackhawks.
The home team put up 31 shots through the first two periods, a relentless attack that kept the Penguins on their heels for the majority of the first 40 minutes.
"It wouldn't have mattered if we played this game inside or outside or if there was snow or no snow," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "They were better and more prepared to play, whatever the conditions were. And the first half of the game was a large indication of that."
Though the Blackhawks were carrying play, it wasn't until halfway through the second period that they began to break the game open.
Minutes later, Patrick Kane also showed that the snow didn't mean the skill had to be put away. He made the typical patient play you'd see him make in an indoor game by waiting out a defender and dishing a tape-to-tape pass to Kris Versteeg, who scored his second outdoor goal in his second stint with the Blackhawks. He also scored at Wrigley Field in 2009.
The Blackhawks were so prolific at scoring Saturday night that the only goal the Penguins put on the board actually came off the stick of Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook, who accidentally swept the puck into the gaping Blackhawks net. That goal was officially credited to James Neal, who was the only consistent threat the Penguins had, it seemed.
Two more third-period goals from the Blackhawks, including another from Toews, gave the home fans a little more to cheer about and the Penguins left with a rout on their hands.
"Our team took this game seriously," Sharp said with a smile. "We wanted to win, but we were just out there having fun."
There aren't any metrics that can tell you whether fun played a role in a team's win, but it sure seemed like it helped the Blackhawks under snowy skies in Chicago.