In a Winter Classic between the NHL’s top two greatest players, neither had a hand in the game that unfolded before the 68,111 people at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field or the national audience viewing on NBC. The Capitals, who grabbed two points in a tight Eastern Conference race with a 3-1 win, saw Eric Fehr and Semyon Varlamov show up as the heroes for the evening.
Despite the uncooperative weather, the Caps managed to even the score from the last time the two teams met. The game, originally scheduled to start at 1 pm, had been moved to 8 pm due to a rainy cold front that rolled through the area. As the game unfolded, light rain fell in spots, making the ice less than optimal but still playable; it didn’t hinder either team from plowing full force into the other.
Bottom line, however, was that no one left the game last night unsatisfied. The Winter Classic, much hyped over the last month, lived up to its billing for fans, coaches, and players of both teams. “It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I can’t imagine football players play every game like this. It’s unbelievable. It’s the kind of thing you want to do all the time, go out and play like this.”
Penguins winger Evgeni Malkin broke the scoreless tie 2:13 into the second period with a right side breakaway, wristing a blistering shot through Varlamov’s five-hole. Less than five minutes later, Mike Knuble made a Capitals power play count to put the Caps on the giant scoreboard. Eric Fehr gave the Caps the lead for good after catching Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury out of position. Fehr followed up in the third to cement the Caps’ win as Varlamov survived a flurry of shots in the waning minutes of the game.
Varlamov got the game’s first star; Fehr the second.
The rivalry between the two teams was evident from start to finish – not that any fan of these two franchises would expect anything less. Nearly everyone was out of their seat when John Erskine and Mike Rupp dropped the gloves in the second period; both connected some big punches before being pulled apart. Both Rupp and Ovechkin had goals waved off as well due to incidental contact with the goalies, decisions by the referees that proved highly unpopular with the crowd.
The tension was palpable from both benches. Even in the last few seconds of the game, both teams were raring to drop the gloves on each other. “There was no less bite,” said Caps forward Jason Chimera. “I think we were supposed to shake hands at the end and they didn’t want to shake hands, but I don’t think we would have wanted to shake hands either if we lost. There was hitting, good goals, good saves. It was a fun night to be in hockey.”
It’s hard to judge either team on their play because the weather and circumstances forced both to alter their strategies a bit. With the ice a bit chippier than usual and the pooling water in the third, long passes and breakout plays were infrequent. Both the Pens and the Caps played a more conservative, short pass game, content to chip it into the zone as deep as they could and attempting to follow up in front of the net. The result was a much closer game in the zones and some strong battles below the circles. Point shots were more prone to being uncontrolled and wild. Short, close passes were needed to create opportunities and that made the teamwork inherent on both sides a lot more important.
The combined 65 shots on goal showed that both teams were capable of adjusting their game to the elements.
“The players, you saw how they were playing,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “There were 60-some-odd shots on goal. The players were into it. I think playing in front of so many people had something to do with that.”
The rain proved to be little more than a nuisance and quite possibly a godsend for the league. With the 8 pm start, the Winter Classic got a shot at prime time coverage and more potential viewers than the standard afternoon slot could’ve provided. With the league continuing to struggle to showcase hockey, the game and its participants looked to be prime fare to draw more interest. But it was also a spectacle grand enough for those in attendance.
“It was more than just a game to everybody,” said Boudreau. “Don’t let anybody fool you. It was a game that we wanted to show people that had never played hockey or watched hockey how good it can be, how exciting it can be. The passion on the guys’ faces when they scored a goal was totally genuine. I thought it was a real good game for the growth of the game and I hope it does grow because of it.
“This is as close to the Stanley Cup as we’ve gotten and we’re not denying that it was more than just two points. It was a fabulous game.”
Thoughts from a more personal view on the 2011 Winter Classic tomorrow.