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Night time turns out to be wrong time for Penguins

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 11:46 PM

PITTSBURGH -- Blessedly at 8:12 p.m. Saturday, the weeks-long Pittsburgh Meteorological Festival was interrupted by an actual hockey game, saving National Hockey League officials and their broadcasting cohorts from the inconvenience of having to build an ark and sail off toward some semblance of winter.

Instead, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin shook hands in front of celebrity puck-droppers Mario Lemieux, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Bradley T. Tinstman, and 68,111 hyper-paying customers.

Wait, could I get a little more build-up?

No, the Winter Classic was finally overtaken by the Penguins and the Washington Capitals, whose difficult interpersonal politics can pull together a pretty decent hockey game just about anywhere, anytime, even here in the tropics of a Pittsburgh's January.

For the entirety of the first period, it was easy to see why the Capitals had allowed only 12 goals in their previous seven games, why they hadn't lost in two weeks, why, for all their woe-is-us character development in the HBO "24/7" docudrama in which Bruce Boudreau attempted unsuccessfully to break the F-bomb record set by New York Jets bigmouth Rex Ryan in the latest "Hard Knocks" caper, they're never to be underestimated.

Thus Crosby managed but one shot in the first 20 minutes, Evgeni Malkin no more than that, and in the second period the Capitals screwed things down even tighter, allowing only eight Penguins Pittsburgh shots in the entire session.

Somehow that didn't keep Malkin from making history at 2:13 of the second, flashing behind Capitals defenseman John Erskine and burying the biscuit for a 1-0 Penguins lead. So the city that hosted the first World Series night game a mere 39 years ago has now hosted the first Winter Classic night game, with Malkin scoring the successful venture's first after-dark goal.

If the 8 p.m. starting time winds up bringing NBC a healthy rating, don't be surprised if the Winter Classic never sees daylight again.

"That's something we'll have to discuss with our network broadcast partner," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman 15 minutes after this slopfest ended without apparent injuries. "Best answer to that question will be an analysis of the ratings when they come in."

Translation: It's all but predestined.

In the future, incidentally, all sporting events will start at 8 Eastern or after, or risk irrelevance. I mean if it hasn't happened on prime time television, has it really happened?

What happened in this one was a pretty fair representation of what the NHL game is all about - which is the oft-stated mission of the Winter Classic - to present the game in all its traditional winter majesty to the uninitiated, so that they might appreciate the game's noble heritage and flowing beauty.

Cut to Mike Rupp pummeling Erskine earnestly about the face and head, and Erskine responding enthusiastically with one haymaker after another to lowlight that first period. That's called five for fighting.

But Malkin's marker didn't hold up for even five minutes of game clock against Boudreau's boys, whose manic net-crashing tied the game when Mike Knuble scored with help from Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom to make it 1-1.

No one watching in Heinz Field or anywhere else could have missed the significance of Eric Fehr's goal late in the same period, which was more than merely the act that pushed Washington into the lead; it sent the Penguins to the locker room trailing after two periods, a situation in which they were a perfectly dismal 0-7-1 for the season.

Fehr's huge shot was purely the fault of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was inexplicably fiddling with the puck at the rear boards behind the goal he was "tending," when the disc flipped free to Fehr in the right circle and was in the net one blink later.

Fleury immediately tried to break his stick over the crossbar in abject frustration, but that too was unsuccessful.

Had the Penguins any solution to this late night predicament, it was the unheralded Fehr who made it double difficult late in the third when he broke in on Fleury and whistled home his second goal of the night (representing a mere 40 percent of his goal production in the club's first 39 games).

A third Capitals goal these days is another harbinger, it so happens. Washington is now 22-0-2 in games when it scores at least thrice.

The 3-1 loss no doubt stung the Penguins personally, as it was likely the most conspicuous hockey game they'll play until April, but just because they weren't great in this Winter Classic doesn't mean they weren't in the last one.

No, not the inaugural version in Buffalo three years ago, the one in Washington Dec. 23, the one that went into overtime and into seven rounds of shootout before Pascal Dupuis ended it for the season's most memorable delivery of two points.

Now that was Classic.

Not only was it Classic, it was indoors.

Isn't that a good idea?

gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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