It was thanks to Troy Brouwer’s game-winner with 12.9 seconds left in a 3-2 victory Thursday afternoon, so only later inside the home clubhouse could the Capitals finally speak to the thrill they had experienced.
They beat arguably the hottest team in the NHL and measured up to what Coach Barry Trotz called “the gold standard.” They got 33 saves from goaltender Braden Holtby and overcame at least six committed penalties for the third time in four games. They watched Eric Fehr cement his Winter Classic legacy, Alex Ovechkin command the spotlight like he always had and Brouwer celebrate with his father in the stands. After five of the past six previous hosts lost, buried by the distractions confronted around the holidays, the Capitals became the second to win.
“That’s always fun when it’s like that,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Be nice if every single game had this much hype.”
As in 2011, when Fehr’s two goals clinched a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field, the Capitals emerged victorious, and now hold the distinction of being the winningest Winter Classic team ever at 2-0. But hosting the event also felt quite different. The weather was sunny and crisp during the daytime, not rainy and miserable at night. The ice conditions, said defenseman Brooks Orpik, playing in his fourth outdoor game, were the best he’s ever seen beneath the open sky. And, of course, they had a crowd thundering in support, bellowing “Unleash the Fury,” drunk on the moment or, maybe, having some post-New Year’s Eve fun too.
“The rivalry we had going with Pittsburgh at that time was pretty stiff, and it was really intense, we were the first year of the HBO, all that stuff,” Alzner said. “The fact we could win that one was pretty outstanding. But the thing that trumps that is being at home. Having this dressing room, all the fans here, that is very, very special. For different reasons, I’d say they’re tied.”
Asked to describe the experience of his first Winter Classic not spent watching on television, Trotz first apologized “to all kids” for his profanity on Epix’s all-access show, then pivoted to the real answer.
“But we tried to give the experience of just being ourselves,” Trotz said. “I went into this just saying, you know what, I got to be myself, the players can read through that, and all that. So good or bad, we were going to go through this and it’s actually helped us learn a lot about ourselves.
“We were, as I said, we’re creatures of habits and I was really worried how our focus would be and we came out with really pretty good focus. We’re maturing as a team, but still in the second period we were crying about everything and whining about everything and it just, our focus wasn’t on the right things. We got off track there. But third period I thought we got back on track and I thought we played a pretty good third.”
Later, inside the victorious locker room, Trotz shared a more uncensored moment with his players, apologies to the children not included.
“Talk about classic,” Trotz told the Capitals. “That’s [bleeping] classic.”