Sweet Sixteen – Playing from behind in less than ideal outdoor conditions in the biggest regular season game in their 36-year history, the Washington Capitals needed some big goals in Saturday’s Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
They got them, three of them. Washington scored three unanswered goals to ring in 2011 with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on a rainy night in Pittsburgh.
After Evgeni Malkin’s goal at 2:13 of the second period gave the home team a 1-0 lead, Washington pulled even at 6:54 on a prototypical Mike Knuble tally. The veteran Caps winger was wearing skates and holding a hockey stick when he beat Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but he might as well have had work boots on and a shovel in his hand.
After Caps defenseman Mike Green fanned on a shot in front, Knuble parked at the top of the paint and hammered away at the puck until he bulldozed it through Fleury and into the net.
Late in the second, Caps center Marcus Johansson picked Fleury’s pocket behind the Pittsburgh net and threw a perfect feed to the front of the net where linemate Eric Fehr waited. Fehr, who has been victimized by many great saves from opposing goalies this season, had a cookie like this one coming. He calmly fired what would prove to be the game-winning goal into a yawning cage.
Washington clamped down once it got the lead. The Penguins recorded nearly half (16) of their 33 shots on goal for the game in the first period when the game was still scoreless.
"We thought it was just going to be a grind-it-out game," says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, "because after we were on the ice [Friday], it didn't look like the ice conditions would be great. So we knew the fancy tic-tac-toe stuff wasn't going to work.
"So we knew 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."
Fehr iced the game with his second tally of the night, a breakaway tally at 11:59 that gave the Capitals some breathing room.
It was the second two-goal game of Fehr’s NHL career.
“The first one I think Johansson turned the puck over behind the net and I just went in front and got a good pass and was able to put it in,” says Fehr. “ The second one, I saw [linemate Jason Chimera] had the puck and the [defense] was stepping up, so I just tried to go for a rush and Chimer made a good pass.
“I was definitely happy I could score. That's for sure. I felt good. The first one felt unbelievable. But 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.”
Starting his third straight game, Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov recorded his third straight win. Varlamov stopped 32 of the 33 shots he faced on the night in recording his seventh win of the season.
The spectacle and the pageantry of the event – and the energy of the 68,111 in attendance – overwhelmed the less than ideal weather conditions. Players and fans alike won’t forget this one anytime soon.
“It was one of the best feelings in my life,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “Again, when you see it's sold out, it's like I can't imagine when football players play every game like this. It's unbelievable.
“It was a great experience,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “It was everything that it was made up to be. It was a really good time for me and my family to get out. It was New year’s and obviously a great effort. I was going to be pretty bummed if we didn’t play as good as we wanted to and like we have been.”
Changing of the [Rear]Guard – Caps defensemen Carlson (26:28) and Karl Alzner (24:25) paced Washington in ice time in Saturday’s game. They did a terrific job of bottling up Pittsburgh’s skilled forwards.
More often than not, Green – who ranks fourth in the NHL with an average ice time of 26:19 per game – is the Caps’ ice time leader at game’s end. But Green logged 21:15 in this one.
Carlson skated 9:21 in the first period of this one, and he felt it.
“I felt dead after the first,” says Carlson. “I didn’t even know I played that much. I said, ‘Deano, how much did I play [to Caps assistant coach Dean Evason]? I feel like I am going to collapse here.’
“And said, ‘9:20.’ I said, ‘Okay, at least it’s not me being out of shape. I played a lot.’ Sometimes that’s the way it is, the way changes go. Sometimes you don’t feel like you played a lot and you don’t and sometimes you play a lot.”
Along with Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, Carlson and Alzner were the only three players in the game who skated more than 20 minutes of even-strength ice time.
“I think me and Karl,” begins Carlson, “we weren’t happy with the Penguins game and what we let Crosby do in that game a week and a half ago. We thought that we played two good games after that and we just tried to carry that momentum.”
A Goal From The Gordie – Caps defenseman John Erskine engaged in a spirited first-period scrap with Pittsburgh’s Michael Rupp.
“He hit me behind the net and he just looked at me and was like, ‘You want to go?’” recounts Erskine. “I was game. It’s always fun to get a fight in in one of these Winter Classics. It was a good time.”
Both players gave and took some hard blows, but the decision goes to Erskine, as Rupp invoked Roberto Duran by asking for the fight to stop.
“We were going back and forth pretty good and then he was asking me to stop toward the end there,” says Erskine. “He said his contact flipped in his eye or something. I didn’t want to keep going at him, so we stopped and ended things.
Erskine added an assist on Fehr’s second goal, giving the rugged defenseman nine points (three goals, six assists) on the season, matching his single-season career best.
“I’ve always been a physical player,” says Erskine. “But to get in a fight in front of 68 or 70 thousand people was a different experience. It was definitely a rush.”
Silent Guns – The Caps won another game in which they did not get a goal from one of their “Young Guns:” Ovechkin, Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. Since the start of the 2007-08 season, the Caps are now 17-33-6 in games in which none of those four players scores a goal.
On the other side of that equation, the capitals are 153-49-28 in games in which one or more of those four players does light the lamp.
This One Goes To Eleven – Tonight’s win was Washington’s 11th this season in games in which it did not score the first goal. The Caps are now 11-11-1 in games when they do not draw first blood. Washington’s record when allowing the game’s first goal is the best in the NHL this season.
Lettermen – As always, Ovechkin’s sweater bore the captain’s “C.” Backstrom and Chimera are the usual road alternate captains, with Tom Poti and Knuble wearing the alternate captain’s “A” for home games.
Tonight in Pittsburgh, Knuble and Backstrom sported the alternate captain’s “A.”
Different Takes – In the first period, Pens forward Mark Letestu shoved Caps forward Brooks Laich in front of the Pittsburgh net. Laich bowled into Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and was called for goaltender interference.
Toward the end of the second period, a very similar play unfolded at the opposite end of the ice. With three Penguins driving the Washington net, Caps defenseman Mike Green gave Pittsburgh’s Mike Rupp a lesser shove than the one Letestu gave Laich. Rupp’s momentum carried him into Varlamov just as a Penguins shot went into the net, a goal that could have made it a 2-2 game going into the third.
The officials view of this one was that there was “incidental contact” between Rupp and Varlamov, and that the goal would not count. No goaltender interference call on Rupp, though.
"Rupp was going to the net with Green," says Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "Green does give him a hit. His skate does catch the pad and it does affect the goaltender. I certainly would have liked the puck to have counted. But I wasn't going to certainly argue too much at the call. It's a split-second decision, and he makes a decision that affects the goaltender.
"So a bit of a disappointment. But we would have tied it up -- I think there were 30 seconds or so left in the period, would have been a big lift. I would have liked walking off the field a little bit more with the fans cheering on that goal. But the referee makes that call. And he has some reason to believe that Rupp did interfere with him."
Start Me Up – A couple weeks back, Caps forward Jay Beagle was in the midst of another strong season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears. Recalled to the District in mid-December, he has played well enough to retain a spot on the Caps’ roster and to stay in the lineup.
Beagle is no stranger to playing against the Pens. He has played three of his 18 career regular season games against Pittsburgh and all four of his NHL playoff games against the Flightless Fowl.
“[Thursday] night coming into [Pittsburgh] – I’ve played here three or four times now in my career – it felt the same, coming into the airport and everything,” says Beagle in recounting the experience on Friday. “But coming into the dressing room [Friday] morning makes it all sink in and you start to get excited.
“I couldn’t ask for it to happen in a better way, to come up and play my game and be helping the team and then to get a chance to play in the Winter Classic. If you would have told me that two months ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s just unbelievable.”
Beagle logged 13:37 in ice time in the Classic, the highest single-game total of his NHL career and more than second-liners Semin and Mathieu Perreault. Beagle recorded two shots on goal and four hits in the game.
Slumping Sid – For the first time this season, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has gone consecutive games without registering a point. Before he was blanked in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Islanders on Wednesday, Crosby was riding a 25-game scoring streak, the longest in the league in 18 years.
By The Numbers – Green led the Caps with five hits … Jeff Schultz paced the Capitals with four blocked shots … Carlson and Alzner led the Capitals with 3:50 each in shorthanded ice time … Semin skated just 12:54 in Saturday’s game, his lowest ice time total (excluding a game in which he was ejected) in nearly two years. Semin logged 12:50 in a Jan. 3, 2009 game against the Rangers.