ORCHARD PARK – As the conditions worsened during Friday’s memorable outdoor tilt between Team USA and Team Canada, the stoppages grew longer. Workers hustled to clear the snow rapidly accumulating on the ice surface, filling garbage cans and wheelbarrows and dumping them.
By the third period, the unwieldy mound of snow at the tunnel end of New Era Field looked higher than the end boards.
When the International Ice Hockey Federation and USA Hockey announced the first outdoor game in World Junior Championship history, they probably dreamed of a postcard-pretty setting and a crazy finish like Team USA’s wild 4-3 shootout win.
“Couldn’t have been more perfect,” forward Kiefer Bellows said after the Americans rallied from two two-goal deficits to down their fiercest rival in a preliminary-round game.
The 44,592 chilly fans who helped set a new World Junior attendance record watched something special.
The snow started falling shortly after the puck dropped and continued throughout the game. By the second period, the heavy snow started impacting the contest.
“A little different than a normal game,” said slick Buffalo Sabres prospect Casey Mittelstadt, who assisted on all three Team USA goals. “It felt like you were back outside on the pond. … It was a blast.”
Team USA captain Joey Anderson said: “That’s something we won’t see again. That was a really neat experience to go through.”
For a while, Team USA looked finished. After Thursday’s stunning loss to Slovakia, the Americans fell behind 2-0 before the first period ended and 3-1 after two.
After the Canadians went up two goals again, coach Bob Motzko, who led Team USA to a gold medal last year, said he told an assistant coach he was worried.
“There was hardly any plays being made,” he said. “It was going to be tough to come back because of the ice conditions. It’s a game you don’t want to chase and we were chasing. I said, ‘It’s too bad, it’s just an unbelievable setting right now and how it’s playing out.’”
The conditions, of course, stymied the talent on the ice.
“A lot of pucks would just stick in the snow,” Anderson said. “That was where our game plan turned into a lot of just rifle it up the ice, get it in deep and be heavy on it and forecheck and put it on net because it was so hard to see the puck.”
In the dressing room after 40 minutes, forward Brady Tkachuk said the Americans were loose. Tkachuk said the youngsters insisted there would be an awesome story at the end of the game.
“Anything can happen with bounces in this type of game,” Bellows said. “That was our mentality and it worked out. We’re very fortunate.”
Team USA quickly roared back. Defenseman Scott Purnovich scored at 6:09 before Tkachuk tied it 34 seconds later.
“All we said at the end of the second, if we get one, we’ll get two, and bang, bang,” Motzko said. “That takes a lot of character today to bounce back from what happened yesterday.”
Mittelstadt, the forward the Sabres picked eighth overall in June, ignited the comeback, showcasing his dynamic playmaking talents.
“Casey was going,” Motzko said of the University of Minnesota freshman, who has a tournament-high six points. “Casey Mittelstadt had some game tonight.”
The pressure for Mittelstadt to leave school a year early will almost certainly increase over the coming months.
Bellows, who scored Team USA’s first goal, tallied again in the shootout before Tkachuk goal sealed a come-from-behind victory the teenagers will cherish forever.
“I’ll be hanging out with some of these guys years down the road and we’ll be talking about it,” Mittelstadt said.
Anderson said: “A lot of us haven’t seen stuff like that since we were little kids playing in the backyard, the ponds. It made (for) another interesting experience.”