By Katie Carrera
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 12:58 AM
PITTSBURGH - Not even unseasonably warm temperatures or the absence of any actual snow seemed to diminish the atmosphere of the first-ever NHL Winter Classic to be contested in prime time. Nor would a pushed-back start time or steady rain take the bite out of one of the league's marquee rivalries between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
With Heinz Field filled to a standing-room-only capacity of 68,111, the Capitals prevailed, 3-1, over Pittsburgh in a matchup highlighted by rattling checks that showcased their heated animosity toward the Penguins on the NHL's biggest regular season stage.
Eric Fehr scored two goals and Semyon Varlamov made 32 saves as Washington utilized a simple game plan that took advantage of the rain and unpredictable ice surface to limit the Penguins' opportunities. It was a welcome conclusion to what had been a rough final month of 2010 for the Capitals, who are 6-7-2 since Dec. 2.
"For us it was a month long buildup, where it didn't start up pretty good but this was like as close to the Stanley Cup that we've gotten," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We're not denying that it was more than just two points. It was a fabulous game. We came in wanting to win this thing, and we got lucky and did."
While the win provided what Washington hopes will be a symbolic end to one of their roughest months in three seasons, the eruption of emotion on the Capitals' bench at the conclusion of the game - with waves of players jumping up and down and whooping - drew the attention of their rivals.
"Yeah I noticed," Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin said of the celebration, "because it's just one game of course you want to celebrate when you win, but this is not final. We still play two more times."
The fourth annual Winter Classic was pushed back from its original start time scheduled for 1 p.m. on New Year's Day to avoid early rain showers in the Pittsburgh area, but even as the revised 8 p.m. faceoff approached trepidations about the quality of the ice surface remained. Crews removed more than 3,000 gallons of water from the rink and worked to restore solidity throughout the day. The contest went off as planned in the evening, but rain picked up as the game progressed, making it hard for players to pass or know precisely where the puck might bounce.
Both teams appeared tentative in the early stages, but an early hit by Alex Ovechkin on Pittsburgh's Zbynek Michalek that rattled the glass out of place and required repairs in the first five minutes made it clear that conditions would not hinder intensity. A scoreless first period was punctuated by a lengthy fracas between Washington defenseman John Erskine and Pittsburgh's Mike Rupp midway through that seemed to invigorate both squads.
The fervor would carry over into the second period, when the pace picked up along with the rain. Malkin broke the deadlock when he tallied his first goal in six games, just more than two minutes into the frame with a wrist shot on a breakaway that found its way between Varlamov's legs to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 edge.
Washington's penalty kill, which went 4 for 4 in the Winter Classic, would make its first key appearance after Malkin's goal, thwarting a goaltender interference call against Brooks Laich to prevent the Penguins from building up any additional steam. The Capitals knotted the game at 1 on a power play of their own with just less than seven minutes gone in the middle period.
After an initial shot by Nicklas Backstrom, chaos erupted around the Pittsburgh net as Washington converged in search of an ugly rebound - Mike Knuble found it when he poked for the puck under Marc-Andre Fleury's pads repeatedly until knocking it over the goal line. The marker prompted pockets of Capitals' faithful, clad famously in red, to spring to their feet throughout the stadium.
"You can see, you can hear when we score goals how many people was fans of Washington," Ovechkin said. "I can see a thousand people in one spot, a thousand people upstairs, it was really unbelievable."
Washington took its first lead of the contest at 14 minutes 45 seconds after Fleury bobbled the puck behind his net and rookie Marcus Johansson fished it out from behind the goal line and sent it to Fehr, who fired into a yawning cage for his first goal of the night.
Despite what appeared to be worsening conditions as rain steadily increased in the third period, Fehr would score again with a shot that beat Fleury high glove side, entering the net just under the crossbar, at 11:59 after a give-and-go at the neutral zone with Jason Chimera to make it 3-1 in favor of Washington. It marked Fehr's first two-goal game of the season and was one of the best plays in a game that required a focus on keeping things simple as the ice surface worsened.
"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," Fehr said. "It was just important for us to try to get every puck deep. As you could see, pucks were bouncing everywhere. Sometimes they're sticking on the ice. You didn't want to lose the puck at the wrong time, just making sure pucks were getting out of the zone. It was really tough to make any passes out there."
The added cushion allowed the Capitals fans in Heinz Field to drown out a substantially larger Pittsburgh contingent with their usual "C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps" cheer as time wound down. Washington is 8-0-2 in the past 10 regular season meetings with the Penguins.
"It was one of the best feelings in my life," Ovechkin said. "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."