Capitals forward Eric Fehr, a third-line grinder who averages less than 13 minutes a game, proved to be the difference, scoring twice, as Washington defeated Pittsburgh 3-1 on Saturday night in the 2011 Winter Classic.
"What can I say?" Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said after the game. "He played a real good game, and he finally got rewarded by doing the things that we know he's capable of doing."
It wasn't pretty; more like an artist's rendering of a hockey game than the kind of artistry the fans can see on a nightly basis around the NHL (I mean, when was the last time rain came falling in Madison Square Garden?). The skillful, pinpoint plays that are routine for these professionals just had to be surrendered to the elements; the choppy ice conditions, and then the heavy rain in the third period wouldn't allow it.
"We thought it was just going to be a grind-it-out game because after we were on the ice yesterday, it didn't look like the ice conditions would be great," Boudreau said. "We knew the fancy tic-tac-toe stuff wasn't going to work. We knew we had to dump it in, and we had to win the game below the circles."
So Washington did just that. Despite having some of the most skilled players in the league -- Alex Ovechkin, most notably -- the Capitals dumped it in and resisted any urge to get flashy on this grand stage.
"You couldn't stickhandle as well as you could in other rinks, but it was just a simple game out there by both teams," Washington defenseman Mike Green said. "We weren't going to be able to make plays in the neutral zone or in our own zone. ... You had to adjust quickly."
And seize opportunity, when it revealed itself. For the Penguins, who struck first when forward Evgeni Malkin scored on a breakaway after getting a long outlet pass from Kris Letang early in the second period, the opportunities seemed to be for the giving. After Washington's Mike Knuble tied the game with a typical hard-working stuff-in at 6:54 in the second, Pittsburgh's defensive breakdowns gave the Capitals the chances they waited for. Late in the middle frame, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who's always best when skating on blue ice, got caught behind his net playing the puck. After an unfortunate bounce it found the blade of Washington's Marcus Johansson, who found Fehr in front of an open net.
In the third, the conditions on the field began to deteriorate.
"It rained a little harder than we wanted it to in the third period there," Capitals forward Jason Chimera said. "[But] it was probably worse for [the Penguins] because they were trying to come back [after] we got the lead [in the second period]. I think it's harder to push and come back when the puck's bouncing that much."
"Well, the puck was bouncing there quite a bit," Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said. "Obviously the puck's bouncing and you're trying to look at it so that it doesn't bounce over your blade, and as soon as you look up, there's a guy coming. ... They just took care of a couple breakdowns that we had."
A premature pinch by Penguins defenseman Paul Martin midway through the third period gave Fehr open ice to snap a shot over Fleury's glove hand.
"I was definitely happy I could score, that's for sure," Fehr said. "We had a good lead going in the third there. We just wanted to play defense, and fortunately I was able to get that second one. But we weren't really trying to go for offense at that point."
The Washington Capitals not going after offense? Indeed, some things do change. Over the last few weeks, Washington has talked a great deal about the changes they've made to their system, to the greater commitment they have made to the other side of the puck. A win here at Heinz Field has given them more reason to believe in it.
"It gives us more confidence to play this system that we're playing right now," Green said. "We've struggled with it over the last month, and now we're finally coming into our own."
NOTES: At the end of the second period, Sidney Crosby was seen hunched over the ice on his knees, apparently dazed after taking a hit to the side of his head by Washington forward David Steckel. It looked like incidental contact, but nothing in the rules distinguishes between accidental and intentional contact. Said Steckel: "I didn't even see him. When the puck was going the other way, I was turning one way, and I didn't even know it was him. Obviously, it wasn't intentional, and he grazed me. I mean, if I were shorter [Steckel is 6' 5"; Crosby is 5' 11"], it probably wouldn't have happened. I was trying to go down on a 3-on-2, and I would hope he knows that." Penguins coach Dan Bylsma didn't have comment, saying he hadn't seen a replay. Steckel, too, did not see the play immediately after the game. ... Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov earned his third straight win in place of Michal Neuvirth, who has been hampered by a tweaked groin. His performance at the Winter Classic is only going to make the goalie situation more difficult to sort in Washington, where halfway through the season, a solid No. 1 has yet to be established. "[Saturday's win] shows that he can play in pressure situations," Boudreau said. "He sort of just took it mentally on him that he wasn't going to allow anything. He's in a pretty good zone right now ... [and] making a great case this week for being No. 1." .... The end of the Classic also signals the end of the road for HBO's all-access pass for their 24/7 series, which chronicled the past month for both teams. Players and coaches both said it would be nice to get back to the normalcy of life outside of reality television, but will miss them in their own way. "We're going to miss them," Bylsma said. "[But] I guess I'll be all right with not having a mic pasted right here all day every day." The way things played out over the last month really did give HBO quite a compelling arc. The Capitals, after a dreadful start to December, seemed to have righted the ship. "I blamed HBO at the start, but they've totally come back and redeemed themselves," Steckel joked. But all parties agreed, the exposure and attention hockey received made it all worthwhile.