On a bright and sunny afternoon, the fans wouldn't be kept away. They flooded the parking lots at the Wells Fargo Center, donning their freshly laundered jerseys, their sweatshirts and hats -- the crisp, pumpkin orange looking even more vibrant after hiding in closets all fall. After all the drama, the calls for boycotting games, the ill will fans spewed at the league and the players for keeping NHL hockey off the ice for nearly four months as the parties argued over riches, it seemed on this afternoon at least that hockey had returned as if it had never left.
On tailgates around the lots, fans discussed their favorite players, potential trades and the strengths and weaknesses of teams around the league. Few complained about the last four months; they seemed just grateful the next four wouldn't be the same. In so many ways, it felt like a typical opening day in the NHL, a marquee meeting between the Penguins and Flyers. The fans were energized, team introductions long.
Once the puck dropped, though, it soon became clear that it wasn't just another Opening Day. The residue of the lockout -- the shortened training camp and no preseason -- showed in the choppy pace of the game, the passes into skates and sloppy play. Though the Penguins pulled out the 3-1 victory Saturday, it wasn't an artful effort for either side; and in truth, it felt at times more like a preseason game than a season opener.
"I don't know if you want to chalk it up to not playing for eight months or whatever," Flyers winger Scott Hartnell said, "but we didn't have any legs that first period."
Within the first 10 minutes, the Penguins had already taken advantage, scoring a pair of quick goals, both off of offensive zone draws. Defenseman Paul Martin's shot from the point on the power play deflected off of forward Tyler Kennedy and past Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov just 4:40 into the game. And less than three minutes later, James Neal whipped a hard shot through Bryzgalov after Evgeni Malkin won a draw over Flyers captain Claude Giroux.
But beyond those eight seconds, give or take a few, the early goings were rather uninspired. Giroux admitted, "The first period was kind of ugly."
Said Neal: "We knew we weren't going to come in here and [play] like it's Game 6 of the playoffs.... We knew we'd be scrambling. We knew we were still trying to get our game legs under us. It's been a while since we've played... [but] our timing will come. Our legs will come."
Sure, the NHL has returned, but how long will it take for NHL-level hockey to come back? "Hopefully not too long," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said. And in reality, the teams cannot afford it to. In the shortened and accelerated season, in which teams will play 48 games in 99 days, each game carries more weight, and rest will be in short supply all around the league. The Flyers, for instance, left the Wells Fargo Center Saturday evening headed straight to Buffalo, where they will drop the puck against the Sabres at 12:30 p.m. Sunday. The Penguins will play the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden at 7 p.m. These sorts of crammed schedules will be the norm for the next few months. And though no one in the league will complain of fatigue yet, it could be a bigger issue as back-to-backs take their toll.
"I'm sure everybody's in the same boat across the league," Penguins defenseman Brooks Oprik said. "I think it'll get better and better as we go along."
Of course, it wasn't all sloppy passes and poor timing all game long. There were flashes of the excitement the rest of the season could promise -- Giroux dangling the puck around Martin near the Pittsburgh cage; Hartnell's deft pass to Giroux, who scored the Flyers' lone goal early in the second period; the intimidating combination of Malkin, Neal and Sidney Crosby on one line.
It's just not all there yet. But it's the promise of it that has brought the fans back.