Caps steal Winter Classic with late game heroics

With diagonal shadows covering a portion of Washington Capitals end, the officials dropped the puck and the 2015 Winter Classic began. A sea of 42,832 hockey fans filled Nationals Park, a mix of Washington and Chicago red shivering in the mostly shaded arena. A replica of the capital building sat on the field with a frozen version of the reflecting pool serving as a red carpet for the Winter Classic elite. Hockey players with thick lines of black under their eyes to block the sun breathed in the fresh air under a nearly cloudless sky, soaking in what would be an unforgettable moment in an unforgettable day.

The NHL decided post-warm-up to play the game at the regularly scheduled time regardless of a sun glare, choosing to have the two teams switch ends halfway through the first period. Possibly fearing competition from the heavily viewed Rose Bowl later in the evening, the game started at 1:30 p.m. sharp.

The scoring began with Eric Fehr working his Winter Classic magic, striking first for the Caps. Fehr scored on a breakaway, going forehand and then backhand, on Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, tucking the puck behind the beaten goalie. The unassisted goal, Fehr’s 11th of the season and third in a Winter Classic, energized the sea of red at Nationals Park, bringing them to their feet.

“I just want to play my best game every game,” Fehr said. “You get outside, some good fresh air, you feel like you can skate forever. I thought our team had some good legs and we played pretty well for the most part of the game.”

The Caps increased their lead to two. This time it was captain Alex Ovechkin with his first goal and first point in a Winter Classic game. Ovechkin found the puck in a sea of skates and sticks right outside the crease after a point shot from Mike Green and wristed his 18th goal of the season behind Crawford.

“Alex, the bigger the stage, the bigger Alex is,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said of his captain. “Alex is a — he’s a rock star.”

The two-goal cushion would not last long. Washington forward Nicklas Backstrom went to the box for a holding penalty, giving the Hawks a valuable man-advantage. Chicago, not wasting any time, struck on the power play early on. It was Patrick Sharpe with his seventh of the season to get the Hawks on the board.

“I didn’t see it, it was a screen, I didn’t really see the release of it,” Holtby said about the goal. “…The first period was definitely a challenge.  It was tough to pick up pucks. But it’s equal for both goalies.”

Chicago closed the gap with their second goal of the game, tying it up early in the second. Quick tic-tac-toe passing gave Brandon Saad his ninth of the season from Jonathan Toews and Marion Hossa.

The Hawks would go to the power play shortly after the goal when Caps forward Jason Chimera took a holding penalty but came up empty.

A momentum shift from the two Hawks goals was apparent, with the energized Caps squad from the first period all but gone, beaten down by Chicago for much for the second.

Chicago received another chance on the power play when Capitals rookie forward Tom Wilson sat for goalie interference. He would be joined less than 30 seconds later by defenseman John Carlson, who got two minutes for high sticking.

“The second period we had lots of penalties,” Backstrom said, referencing the three minors taken by the Caps in the middle frame. “We didn’t play good at all. We talked a little bit in the locker room before the third period how we were going to come out harder. And we did that, we started skating again after those penalties.”

With almost a minute and a half to work the 5-on-3, Capitals penalty killer prevailed over the Hawks power play unit, earning a voracious cheer from those rocking the red at Nationals Park, who had been muted since the beginning of the period. Trotz called the 5-on-3 kill “the tipping point of the game.”

“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,” he said.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said his squad “missed a big opportunity” to cash in on the two-man advantage.

“You don’t score on five and threes, you generally don’t win and that ended up being the result,” he said.

Holtby credited the success of the kill to the penalty-killing unit.

“I think I only stopped one or two shots in that,” he said. “…That shows how committed we were to playing with the commitment we needed, in order to kill that off and get some huge blocks and huge clears and that’s like scoring a goal for us right there.”

The third period was an epic tug-of-war showdown between the two teams, neither truly dominating for a large stretch of the final frame. The puck traveled north to south, both teams getting chances.

With a little over three minutes left in the third period, Washington defensemen Matt Niskanen earned himself a boarding penalty and the Caps went to the penalty kill at a crucial juncture in the game. The Caps got a power play of their own with only two seconds left on Niskanen’s minor when Toews received a hooking penalty.

Quenneville had no problem with the late-game call.

“We had a power play before that, so I think both teams had their turn and they cashed in.”

And cash in they did. With just 12.9 seconds left in the game, Brouwer shot a puck from the left faceoff circle, sneaking the puck under Crawford’s glove. It was the first goal from Brouwer against his former club, bringing Nationals Park to their feet in the finals seconds of regulation in a game that seemed headed for an overtime finish.

“I was trying to go to the net because I knew he was shooting and we were running out of time,” Brouwer said. “I’m not sure where it even went in…it was one of those where you know the time, you know the score, and you’re just trying to get a puck on net, and thankfully it went in.”

Quenneville was none too happy with his team’s defense on the play.

“We should have got that puck or got it out,” Quenneville said about the game winner. “Our penalty killing has been one of our key strengths all year long and we didn’t capitalize on it, but at the end of day, it was a brutal loss.”

In the neighboring locker-room, it was quite the opposite scene.

“Today the big players were in play,” Trotz said.  “A guy like Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, ex-Blackhawk, us killing penalties and then going on a power play late in the game and turning that thing around and getting a big win.”

“Emotionally, that was a great script for us, because it showed a little bit of what I think the Capitals are becoming as a group.”