- Marcus Johansson and the Capitals outworked and outhustled the Penguins in their 3-1 victory in the Winter Classic (Photo: Associated Press)
PITTSBURGH-It was built up like a playoff game. It was played with the intensity and physicality of a playoff game. And, ultimately, the Washington Capitals won the 2011 NHL Winter Classic in the way that they will win however many playoff games go their way in the spring.
It was fitting, in that sense, that the game was played on an ice rink surrounded by a carpet of fake snow (for the benefit of NBC's cameras) and in temperatures that fluctuated between the high-40s and and low-50s. If you didn't have a calendar handy, you would have felt like this game was being played on May 1, not January 1.
When the run-up to this game is examined in retrospect, it will appear that the Caps were being set up to implode spectacularly. They had been co-stars of a reality show that exposed all the tensions inherent in the team's eight-game December losing streak. Their coach had become (in the eyes of casual viewers, and not at all fairly) the epitome of the cartoonish, incoherent, dumb-jock-cum-out-of-his-depth-coach. Washington came off as the snakebitten bunch, the playoff chokers, the gang that couldn't make it easy on themselves, forever trying and failing to measure up to the well-blooded, mettle-proven, championship-winning group from Pittsburgh.
And then, the Capitals came into Heinz Field, in front of 68,111 people (most of whom, despite the large presence of Caps fans, still despised them), and played the Penguins even for one period before giving up an early breakaway goal to Evgeni Malkin with 17:47 remaining in the second.
It was easy to suspect at the time that that would be the killer blow, that the floodgates would open, and once again the Capitals would fall to defeat on a national stage. But instead of hanging their heads, Washington pricked up their ears. Instead of playing to limit the damage and hoping that luck was on their side, they went right at the Penguins and made their own luck.
Two minutes and forty-three seconds after Malkin's goal, Alex Ovechkin set off on a break out of the Caps defensive zone. Max Talbot panicked, grabbed Ovechkin, was sent to the penalty box for holding, and the Capitals scored on the ensuing power play to tie the game. The tying goal was a classic playoff marker featuring a loose puck, a scramble at the net, and a veteran (Mike Knuble) doing the honors.
Then, late in the period, Marcus Johansson came fresh off the bench on a line change and saw Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury mishandle the puck behind his net. Taking his cue from his captain and his veteran teammates, the young Swede attacked.
"I saw he didn't have control of the puck," Johansson said. "He didn't know where I was." Johansson intercepted Fleury's abortive clearing attempt and centered to Eric Fehr, who scored the first of his two goals on the night.
"We thought it was going to be a grind-it-out game," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. "It didn't look like the ice conditions would be great [Friday]. So we knew the fancy, tic-tac-toe stuff wasn't going to work. We know we had to dump it in, and we had to win the game below the circles, and I thought we did a real good job of that."
Ironically, everything that Caps fans feared would work against their team worked out for the best. The ice was not perfect, but held out just enough. The weather was awful, but slowed down the home team more than the visitors. The biggest call of the game, a marginal goaltender interference ruling that canceled out a potential game-tying goal late in the second period, went their way.
While not the results-based adversity of an eight-game losing streak, it was the adversity of surroundings -- as well as the Penguins -- that the Capitals were up against Saturday night. And who would have guessed that the Capitals would have to go outside to find out exactly what each man really had inside them: the energy, the defiance, the spirit, the will of steel that makes hostile environments and quality opposition seem like just another speed bump.
To sum up, in the words of Mike Knuble: "Everybody gave a crap tonight."
My Three Stars
-Eric Fehr: Scored his fifth and sixth goals to provide the Capitals with their winning margin.
-Semyon Varlamov: Stopped 32 shots while battling the wind and rain, as well as the Penguins.
-Mike Knuble: Things would not have ended as well as they did (or, perhaps, well at all) without Knuble's scrambled, game-tying, second period goal.