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Winter Classic turned into a showcase on slush

The Capitals defeat the Penguins under the lights at Heinz Field.

The NHL did yeoman's work in producing a playable surface at all, but players sometimes seemed to be skating through water - as indeed they were. Alex Ovechkin had a slip and fall in the first period. On the Caps' first goal, in the second period, Mike Green took a shot on goal, fell in the crease and Mike Knuble just kept chipping away, literally, until the puck finally got by Marc-Andre Fleury.

"We were hoping they'd call it on account of rain in the third," Coach Bruce Boudreau said.

That was a definite possibility, and the NHL had detailed plans in place for such an occurrence. The Winter Classic may be a return to hockey's roots, but Saturday's game featured two of the most skilled teams in the NHL. No one wants to watch Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby slog around the ice like, well, farm kids on a frozen pond. They entered the game dead even in career points (571), and what started as playful jockeying has turned into a real rivalry in the Bird-Magic mold.

And it's not just the star players. Overall, as Keith Jackson would say, these two teams plain don't like each other. The Caps have played the Penguins more than any other team in the league, and the series stands at a taut 84-86-16-5. The Caps are 8-0-2 in their past 10 meetings and are 4-0-0 on New Year's Day against Pittsburgh.

It's the kind of rivalry the NHL needs to showcase on a holiday Saturday night on prime time television, and it's the kind of opportunity to grow its fan base that the NHL doesn't want to miss, or waste. Bettman said the prime time factor was not a consideration in moving the start time but admitted, "That's something we'll have to discuss with our network broadcast partners, obviously. . . . I can't tell you how good or bad this was. My guess is it was good until we ultimately see the ratings."

The idea of an outdoor game is a grand and noble one, and the league should stick with it. It honors the sport's traditions in a way that throwback jerseys and "The Hockey Song" just can't, despite a loss of intimacy with the fans seated far from the glass. It exposes non-hockey fans to the game, on a holiday, as an alternative to 12 hours of football.

But if the NHL hopes to keep the Classic from turning into a gimmick, it needs to make sure fans and potential fans alike see the sport at its very best.

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