‘Prelude’ Sets Bar High for Winter Classic

Thursday’s contest between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals couldn’t have been scripted any better if it was a focal point of an all-access, behind-the scenes HBO sports documentary series.

“You talk about the hype and buildup and rivalry and, when the puck dropped, it was exactly what the buildup was,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “It was a playoff type of game.”

Taking place at Washington’s Verizon Center, this first meeting of the two clubs this year had Sidney Crosby scoring early in the first period to extend his point streak to 23 games, longest in the post-lockout era. It had a failed penalty shot attempt, a dramatic shorthanded goal to send the game to overtime, a stunning save in the extra frame, and Alex Ovechkin rattling the Penguins with his physical play, then opening the scoring in a shootout that looked like it had the potential to go on all night before Pittsburgh’s Pascal Dupuis ended it, seven rounds in.

But, most of all, it had Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. With a 15-1-1 record in his last 17 starts, the 26-year-old netminder continued his redemption in a season that started as his worst ever and has seen him blossom into a bona fide Vezina Trophy candidate.

“He was our best player, by far, all night,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik.

Fleury made 32 stops and stoned six Capitals in the shootout to earn the 3-2 win. Many of those chances were high-quality ones at point-blank range from the sticks of talented snipers – Mike Green and Ovechkin led the way with six and five shots, respectively – but the save of the night was his acrobatic glove stop on Green in overtime.

Green made a pretty move to get around the Penguins’ defenders to the front of the net, then tucked a shot inside the post that was heading across the goal line when Fleury reached back to grab it out. Green threw up his hands in disbelief, but the puck couldn’t be seen on a video review, and the no-goal call on the ice stood.

“He was outstanding, sharp on the penalty kill, the point-blank [shots], but even on some of the rushes and shots through traffic, he was sharp picking those out as well,” Bylsma said.

“And that save on Green in overtime was outrageous.”

Fleury got some help from his teammates, who blocked a season-high 23 Capitals shots. He might’ve preferred to spend a little less time facing Washington’s high-octane power play – converting at a rate of 19.8 percent, it’s in the league’s top third – but Pittsburgh’s penalty kill came through, stopping all but one of the Caps’ six chances, including two 5-on-3 situations.

And Fleury was a big part of that, especially when the Penguins got into penalty trouble early on.

“We definitely got him into it right away with all the penalties, [which was] not exactly how we scripted it,” said Orpik. “Especially on the 4-on-3s and 5-on-3s, he was making great saves, and that’s five of the best guys you’ll face in the league on a 5-on-3.

“I thought our PK did a great job but, when he’s playing the way he does, that gives everybody else in front of him a lot of confidence to play the way we want to.”

The Penguins as a whole had some confidence to build on after those early kills, culminating in Crosby’s opening goal at 3:21. Still, the Capitals kept coming, outshooting Pittsburgh 25-12 in the first two periods. And, with just one exception – Green’s point-blank shot through traffic on a second-period power play – Fleury was there.

“[The power play] was where they had a lot of their chances and shots but, if we could get out of it, we should be in a good spot,” Fleury said. “When they don’t go in, we could keep building on the momentum from the PK.”

Pittsburgh is certainly gaining some momentum from the play of its goaltender over the past two months.

“This is probably as consistent as I’ve ever seen him play,” Orpik said. “He’s obviously had a boatload of talent but, I think, in this league, that’s the toughest thing to achieve as a young guy, or even as an older guy. You learn some nights you don’t feel as well as other nights, and you just try to play as consistent as possible. And that’s what he’s done for us this year.”

With 50 points – one better than archrival Philadelphia, five better than Washington – the Penguins now sit atop the NHL standings entering the two-day holiday break. One week from Christmas, they’ll see these Capitals again outdoors at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field.

It will be tough to top this one.

“You almost wish this was the outdoor game,” Bylsma said. “It’s a prelude for sure, but every time these teams get together, these players, there seems to be a clash of skill and talent. And I expect we’ll see something very similar on January 1.”

“I feel like we’ve seen that game before, and it’s had different endings each time,” Crosby said. “Tight checking, intense all the way through, some great plays, great saves, it was good hockey.

“That’s pretty much what we expect when these two teams play.”

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