WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On a crystal clear, chilly New Year’s Day at Nationals Park, the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks took to a makeshift outdoor rink that stretched from first base to third base.
The place was packed, with 42,832 fans filing in for a show that included concerts by Billy Idol, Gavin DeGraw and Lee Greenwood (who is still proud to be an American). Oh, and some pretty decent hockey between a perennial power from the Western Conference and a home team that is starting to find its way under first-year coach Barry Trotz.
Washington came into the game having earned at least a point in 11 of its past 12 games (8-1-3). The Blackhawks came in winners of 13 of their previous 16 games (13-2-1). After the Capitals jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, the Blackhawks fought back to tie it in the second period, and from there the contest settled into a defensive battle in surprisingly good conditions.
Here are three thoughts from the Capitals' last-minute 3-2 victory in the Winter Classic (boxscore):
1. For fairy tale stories, you can’t do better than the game-winner by Troy Brouwer.
Brouwer is a former Blackhawk, having been a member of their 2010 Stanley Cup championship team before being traded to the Capitals. He’s played more than 200 games with each team and this was his second appearance in a Winter Classic. He made it count, with his father Don in attendance. Don Brouwer was unable to see any of the Blackhawks’ Cup run because he was in a hospital recovering from a stroke. So you can imagine that his son Troy was pretty darn happy when he shoveled a power play goal past Chicago's Corey Crawford with 12.9 seconds left to play in regulation.
He may have been the second-happiest person in the building, trailing only his dad.
2. Make a mistake against Chicago and the Blackhawks will usually make you pay.
As well as the Blackhawks have been playing lately, it takes a pretty disciplined, almost perfect game to beat them. For long stretches, the Caps did just that. They even managed to kill off a two-man-down situation for 1:31 midway through the second period. After Tom Wilson went off for goalie interference followed shortly by John Carlson for high sticking, Chicago couldn’t covert. But a couple of lapses before that successful kill let Chicago back into it after the Blackhawks had fallen behind 2-0, leading to the game going down to the wire when it likely shouldn’t have been so close.
Late in the first, with the Caps up 2-0, Nicklas Backstrom took a penalty for holding. Seven seconds later, Chicago's Patrick Sharp blasted the puck from the blueline past Washington goalie Braden Holtby.
SEVEN seconds. Backstrom had barely taken his seat in the penalty box and he was out.
Early in the second, Carlson turned the puck over and Brandon Saad almost immediately put it past Holtby to even the score 3:15 into the second period.
No team is going to convert every chance. But the really good teams convert most of them and Chicago is a really good team. The Capitals are getting there. They tightened up, managed to persevere and set up Brouwer for his big moment.
3. Eric Fehr is the king of all outdoors.
The Caps forward scored the game’s first goal on an unassisted beauty with 7:01 gone in the first period. It was his third tally in an outdoor game, more than any other NHL player.
Fehr went into the game as the only Capitals player who'd scored an outdoor goal, having potted two in a 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh in 2011. Mike Knuble, who left the Caps after the 2012 season, scored the other. Fehr was also probably the only player in Thursday’s game who has written a children’s book, though we can’t verify that for sure.
The first-period goal was Fehr’s 11th of the season, only two off his total from last year with more than half a season to play. It was also his fourth goal in the Caps’ past three games.
GALLERY: THE NHL OUTDOORS