Once the celebration migrated into the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, while the whole building thundered like the giant New Year’s Day party it had become, the hero of the 2015 Winter Classic saw a text message from his father. Almost five years had passed since Don Brouwer suffered a stroke that left him comatose for six days and still severely limited, and he had never seen his 29-year-old son, Troy, play hockey as a member of the Washington Capitals.
As Brouwer read the note, he decided the best response would be to share the thrill in person. “Knowing how my dad is right now,” Brouwer said, “he’s probably got a couple tears.”
Of all the perfect ways this perfect day could have ended for the hosts, try imagining one better than what happened Thursday afternoon in Southeast Washington: a son scoring the winning goal with 12.9 seconds left for a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, his former team, as his father watched from the stands, the proudest face among a crowd hurling seat cushions like wedding rice.
Oh, and the winning goal came from a downtrodden power play seizing upon a moment of redemption. With Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews relegated to the penalty box for hooking, the clock ticking toward five minutes of overtime, Alex Ovechkin’s hands flew into the air, begging for a whistle as the shards of his broken stick crashed to the ice. An official indeed signaled a penalty, but it didn’t matter. When Ovechkin spun around, he saw a miracle.
Brouwer understood the time constraints and just wanted something sent toward the goal. He never saw the puck zip past goaltender Corey Crawford. He just heard the crowd and saw the mob coming his way, a second outdoor event captured for the Capitals in the past five years.
“For sure,” Ovechkin said, “I’m going to remember this moment long time.”
They will remember the stark contrast between Thursday’s cloudless day and their slushy, rainy win over Pittsburgh at the 2011 Winter Classic. They will remember the F-16 jets roaring overhead while they stood atop a scaled-down replica Reflecting Pool and listened to the national anthem .
They will remember Eric Fehr becoming the NHL’s leading outdoor goal scorer with his breakaway deke during the first period for the game’s first goal. They will remember Ovechkin whipping his arms like an eagle after putting the Capitals ahead 2-0. And the nerve-fraying five-on-three penalty kill that halted Chicago’s comeback. But mostly, they will remember the home team emerging victorious, just the second time in seven Winter Classics the hosts earned a win.
Most of all, though, these Capitals will remember charging onto the ice when the last few seconds ran out after Brouwer scored, mobbing goaltender Braden Holtby who, like Crawford, faced 35 shots on goal but saved one more.
“I’ve got the first question,” Coach Barry Trotz said to begin his postgame news conference. “Did anybody have any fun? Yeah, I’m having a lot of fun right now.”
As the shadows crept across the ice, pockets of brightness helped the Blackhawks strike back. Seven seconds into a power play, Chicago’s Patrick Sharp blasted a near-invisible puck from the point. Holtby, making his 14th straight start, had no chance.
Gifted life by a matter of centimeters after Ovechkin twice pinged the goal posts, the Blackhawks capitalized when defenseman John Carlson’s pass thudded off a dead spot on the boards and settled near the back of the net. Brandon Saad beat Fehr to the puck and tied the game, wrestling momentum to the visiting bench.
Matters seemed to worsen for the Capitals when Tom Wilson’s goaltender interference and Carlson’s high stick pushed them onto the wrong end of a five-on-three. Trotz fumed and punched the glass behind his bench in frustration. But Chicago never even put a puck onto Holtby, undone when Duncan Keith’s stick snapped mid-shot.
“To me, that was the tipping point of the game,” Trotz said. “We don’t kill that off, the Chicago Blackhawks are leaving here with the two points and we probably have a pretty disappointed locker room.”
It seemed only fitting the tight game would head to overtime. Then the officials tabbed Toews for hooking, an 11th penalty that tied a Winter Classic record. The ailing Washington power play, having converted just 6 of 41 attempts in December, climbed over the boards. Brouwer took his traditional spot in the slot. Somewhere in the stands, his father watched and waited and hoped.
“I’ve had some good moments in my hockey career before,” said Brouwer, who won the 2010 Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, one year before they traded him to Washington. “But this one, with all the intangibles that play a part of it, my parents being able to come into town . . . the dramatic fashion at the end of the game of how it played out, it’s definitely going to be a memorable day.”
More on the Winter Classic:
Dan Steinberg: For once, no blow to cushion for D.C. fans
John Feinstein: Holtby is the Capitals’ fourth star