Photo credit: Gregory Shamus
After a year of build-up and three glorious episodes of HBO’s 24/7, the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins finally met at Heinz Field in front of 68,111 loud, screaming fans to compete in the 2011 Winter Classic. Much like the 39 games before and the 42 games to follow, this game counted the exact same amount in the standings: two points.
But both you and I know it meant waaaaaay more than that. You could see it in how the Caps played, celebrated and spoke after the game. This was the biggest game they had ever played in their NHL careers. And it showed.
At 8:17pm the first puck dropped. It would then take over twenty-two compelling game minutes to see the 2011 Classic’s first goal. In the second period, Marc-Andre Fleury made a routine stick save along the ice on Alex Ovechkin. Kris Letang then took the rebound and alertly flung the puck up ice where he found a streaking Evgeny Malkin. The Capitals’ defense, caught on a bad change, allowed Malkin to go in all alone on Semyon Varlamov. Malkin went five-hole and the the Penguins took a 1-0 lead.
But their one goal advantage – and Pens fans’ annoying waving of their moronic Terrible Towels – would be short-lived. After Alex Ovechkin drew a penalty on Max Talbot for holding three and a half minutes later, the entire Capitals powerplay unit crashed the net like their lives depended on it. Ageless wonder Mike Knuble managed to pitchfork the puck through Fleury’s legs during a scrum in front. Knuble’s ninth goal of the season, not only would tie the game up, it would also reinvigorate the team and also allow them to relax.
Nearly eight minutes later, in a rare stroke of good luck at even-strength, Marc-Andre Fleury misplayed a seemingly innocent dump-in behind the net. Marcus Johansson pounced on the mistake and hit Eric Fehr with a slick pass to the slot. Fehrsy then suavely deposited the puck into a yawning net where the Caps would take a 2-1 lead into the second intermission.
In the third period, both teams traded several scoring chances, until Eric Fehr uno seised Fluery on a breakaway and went top shelf. From there, the Caps played a trap (I can’t believe I wrote that) and expertly protected their lead until the clock ran out.
Yes, that noise is me fist-pumping. Caps beat the Pens 3-1.
- First, a question. What’s better than going up to our biggest rival’s city in masse, roaming their streets, taking over their restaurants and bars, yelling “Let’s Go Caps” at the top of our lungs, and then watching our hockey team kick the living bejeezus out of theirs on New Year’s Day? Um, nothing.
- I’m not getting too cocky about this one because the ice conditions clearly played a role. Still, you could make a convincing argument that this was one of the biggest wins in Capitals history. They desperately needed this game.
- John Erskine‘s first period bout with vespa-hater Mike Rupp was epic. Erskine, clearly unconcerned with his own health or well-being, recklessly exchanged haymakers with Rupp until his combatant asked out of the fight due to a dislodged contact. Yes. A dislodged contact. It really was a shame, because Erskine was about three punches away from giving Rupp a problem his optometrist couldn’t fix.
- Mike Knuble is the old, yellow horse glue that keeps this team together. The team took on his personality after his second period powerplay goal, and they never looked back.
- Eric Fehr is a true pro, and tonight his hustle and determination was what tipped the scales in Washington’s favor. Fehr, who at times was double-shifted, was on the ice for five chances for at even strength, and his second goal of the night sent Pens fans home in droves.
- Alex Ovechkin may not have scoared, but his presence was certainly felt. Just as Zbynek Michalek, whom the Russian Machine nearly checked through the glass in the first period.
- My immediate reaction when Jason Chimera defied the laws of physics and missed that easy wraparound goal: “Crosby, go expletive yourself.” I should have been mad at Chimera, but I cursed at Crosby. Force of habit? I don’t know. I confused myself.
- Semyon Varlamov sure likes the big stage, doesn’t he? If he can play like that for the next four months, the Caps should be in pretty good shape.
- Bruce Boudreau had this game figured out and turned in one of his best coaching jobs of his career. It would have been tempting to give tons of ice time to his studs, but he kept going to the grinders. Freaking Jay Beagle was on the ice nearly two minutes longer than Alex Semin. You had to play dump and chase to win this game. The Penguins never really figured that out.
- Would you believe that Carlzner limited Sidney Crosby’s line to only three chances at even strength and zip, zero, nada in the third period? That was huge.
- The Capitals outchanced the Penguins 23 to 18 overall, and 19 to 12 at even strength.
Tonight, the nasty goals won it. There was absolutely no finesse. There was nothing pretty about this game. This was Caps hockey at it’s best and I could not be more proud of these guys for the way they performed on National TV in front of millions of people.
I know it’s hard to think about right now, but the Capitals can’t party too long because Tuesday night the Tampa Bay Lightning are coming to town. And that’s an important divisional game. At stake: the same two points that were up for grabs tonight.
Additional reporting by Neil Greenberg and Peter Hassett