By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 12:39 AM
PITTSBURGH - The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins boast talented rosters, replete with players capable of making scintillating passes and scoring highlight-reel goals in bunches. Both teams, however, at times struggled to show off that talent due to soupy ice conditions, warm temperatures and intermittent rain showers in Saturday's fourth annual Winter Classic.
As the game began, puddles of water could be seen behind the net, in the faceoff circles and along the boards. The conditions deteriorated in the third period of the Capitals' 3-1 victory as a steady rain developed and the NHL's hockey operations department decided to have the teams switch sides at the 10-minute mark because of wind gusts.
Capitals General Manager George McPhee "talked to me about it yesterday and we thought it was going to be a grind-it-out game because after we were on the ice yesterday, it didn't look like the ice conditions were going to be great," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We knew the fancy, tic-tac-toe stuff wasn't going to work. We knew we had to dump it in and win the game below the circles."
The weather conditions played a big role in the Capitals' tactics in the third period, players from both teams said, as Washington worked to protect a two-goal lead. "It was a big advantage for us," winger Jay Beagle said. "The ice conditions kept getting worse and that made it hard to score and make skilled plays. It was a little bit easier for us to chip and grind it out."
Beagle, a fourth-line winger, then cracked a big smile and added, "After the first [period], I was thinking this is my style of game - grind it out, get it deep."
Penguins center Jordan Staal said the rain certainly made creating offense exponentially more difficult, but he stopped short of saying it directly affected the outcome of the game.
"It was tough, very difficult to get things going," Staal said. "There were a lot of chippy plays and you're just trying to get to the net. They collapsed pretty hard around their net and blocked a lot of shots."
Two of the game's most skilled players - Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby - were held without a single point. But Crosby said his lack of production wasn't the result of the weather.
"The conditions were all right," said the Penguins captain, who played through snow flurries in the inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008. "I think when it started to come down pretty good there, you could see the puck started to bounce a little bit more. But other than that, I mean, it's the same for both teams, and both teams kind of expected to play through that."
Capitals veteran Mike Knuble said the trickiest part of game that began with the thermometer showing almost 52 degrees was adjusting to the ever-changing conditions.
"I think we were all looking at each other during the warmups saying, 'It's got to get better than this,' " he said.
The ice, Knuble said, improved significantly between the first and second periods as the temperature dropped. But then conditions deteriorated again when the rain and wind picked up in the third.
"I don't know what they did between periods, because we came out and said, 'Ooh, this looks like a real rink,' " he said. "They did the same thing between the second and third and then the rain came. But at least it wasn't constant. All things considered, I'm sure the league is extremely happy that this thing is done."
Despite the rain - and the defeat - Staal said he and his teammates had no regrets when asked if outdoor games are necessary given the challenges they faced Saturday.
"Yeah, no question," he said. "Ask any player in the league, they would love to be a part of this game. If there's a blizzard out there - or rain - you're still going to want to play. It was still an amazing experience."