Pens ‘Privileged’ To Be Part of Winter Classic

On a night like this, the carefully crafted strategies of coaches Dan Bylsma and Bruce Boudreau didn’t matter much. Neither did the offensive gifts of skilled players like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

With the game-time temperature a decidedly non-wintery 51.7 degrees and intermittent rain pouring down on the fans, the players and the ice throughout the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals wrote the latest chapter in their well-documented rivalry with a highly physical contest.

The slushy ice conditions – complete with scattered puddles of rain – didn’t stop the players from throwing their bodies with abandon. Pittsburgh delivered 44 hits and Washington countered with 26, including a hit from behind by David Steckel that had Crosby leaving the ice slowly to end the second period.

“It got my head, that’s for sure, but I don’t even know how it developed,” Crosby said.

Although both teams got a pretty goal – Pittsburgh on a steal and breakaway by Evgeni Malkin, Washington on a nice cross-ice pass from Jason Chimera to Eric Fehr, who beat two Penguins defenders to make the score 3-1 and give the Caps some breathing room – each spent more time crashing the net in an effort to put pucks home. The Capitals got one that way, with forward Mike Knuble scoring on a power play with lots of traffic in front, while both clubs had a goal disallowed due to incidental contact with the goaltender.

“The skill guys couldn’t do much with the puck because of the conditions and the ice,” said Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek. “Everybody was skating hard; it was a pretty fast game and a lot of hits.”

With wet conditions, gusting winds and bouncing pucks, the contest came down to mistakes, and the Capitals took full advantage of the Penguins’ miscues. The eventual game-winner, in particular, is one that Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury would like to have back, as he misplayed the puck behind the net and couldn’t get back in position in time to stop Fehr from taking a pass in front and cashing in.

“I have to see a replay of what happened,” Fleury said. “I think I just stopped to look around and the puck was gone.”

“It’s all about communication and, sometimes, when it’s loud out there, it’s hard to hear. And with the ice conditions, especially for a goalie, it’s not easy to handle the puck,” Michalek said. “Their goalie stayed in the net most of the time, but Flower likes to play the puck, that’s his style, and we have to make sure we talk to him.”

That goal gave the Capitals a 2-1 advantage to end the second, which looked to be a pretty nice position to be in when the rain picked up its pace to start the third.

“We were saying on the bench, it’s going to help us,” Knuble said. “They were the ones that were behind, and it was going to be tough to manufacture offense with the weather like that.”

Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov was perfect the rest of the way, stopping 32 shots on the night to Fleury’s 29, and Washington sent a largely disappointed crowd – about two-thirds had been cheering on the Penguins – off into the rainy Pittsburgh night.

What could not be spoiled, however, are the memories – for the 68,111 fans in attendance, for the many more watching at home, and for the players who had the opportunity to participate.

“It was under the lights in prime time; that’s never been done before and I think it added another element to the game,” Michalek said. “Too bad the weather wasn’t great, but that’s part of the game when you play outside. The result wasn’t what we wanted, but the experience is something we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives.”

“It’s a pretty amazing feeling, and to be playing hockey in front of that many people is something none of us probably ever dreamed of doing,” Crosby said. “It would’ve been nice to be on the other side of things, but it’s still a privilege to be part of that.”

And, with any luck, the league’s efforts surrounding the event – which grows bigger every year and, this time, included a riveting look inside the teams on HBO’s “24/7” series – will have captured the interest of both new and established hockey fans.

“Look at the stage we were on,” said Penguins forward Max Talbot. “It’s good for hockey. You want to sell the game, you want to market it. I don’t know the ratings but I’m sure [they] were great, and I’m sure that the fans enjoyed the game.”

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