PITTSBURGH -- It was winter according to the calendar, although the game-time temperature of nearly 52 degrees seemed to suggest otherwise.
And to describe it as a classic, well that might be a stretch, too, despite the fact that the game featured the NHL's two best players on national television and in front of a live audience more than three times the normal size.
|The Capitals are starting to fly again. After the Winter Classic, they have won five of six after an eight-game slide. (US Presswire)|
Even the steady rain that fell for the last half failed to dampen spirits, particularly for the Washington Capitals. They turned back the hometown Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in the fourth edition of the Winter Classic, the now-annual New Year's Day showcase that has become the most important promotional event on the league calendar.
"Don't let anybody fool you, it was a game that we wanted to show people that have never played hockey or watched hockey how good it could be and I thought it was real good for the growth of the game," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "And we're not denying that it was more than just two points. We wanted to win, but this is like as close to the Stanley Cup as we've gotten."
Of course that could change for the Capitals now that they have a little history on their side. The previous three visiting teams in the Winter Classic have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, although they've all lost. But for this edition of the Caps, getting that far might be a victory in itself.
Washington is an immensely talented team, after all, one that has seemed on the verge of greatness the last couple of years only to be undone by a basic flaw in its perception of how defense should be played. The Capitals have made it a stated commitment to improve that part of their game this season, and after an uneven start, the change has become evident for the team since it snapped an eight-game winless drought by coming out on the long end of five of their last six contests.
"We went through a tough time, it was a growing period and hopefully we are a better team for it," Washington forward David Steckel said. "The immaturity we've had in years past and the playoffs, there was a lot of talk this team wasn't built for it, but we've battled through it together and we're stronger for it."
What has arguably been most impressive about this recent turnaround has been how the Capitals have tightened up things in their own end, particularly of late. The Caps are all about offensive fire power, but Washington has allowed only 13 goals in its last eight games, none of them on the last 20 power plays they've faced. And the Capitals' surprisingly effective commitment to defense was never more apparent than in the third period on this night, when their task was to protect a two-goal lead for the last half of it as conditions deteriorated.
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"When we get the lead, the whole team was concentrating on getting the puck [in] deep and play more defensive," said Ovechkin, who was stoned twice on great chances in the second period by Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
The irony in that is while Fleury kept the Penguins in the game during the middle frame when the Capitals began dominating play, firing 16 shots, he did them in as well by getting caught out of position when Eric Fehr beat him to give Washington the lead for good. Mind you, the Penguins netminder helped give his team a first-period lead when he caught Washington on a line change and started a play that ended with Evgeni Malkin scoring his 14th goal of the season, but the go-ahead goal by Fehr after Mike Knuble tied things on a power play was a killer for a Pittsburgh team that is now winless in nine games when trailing after 40 minutes.
"Given the situation, they were content to get [the] puck out and get them deep and it made it tough on us to try to mount something in the third period," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
Even more so when Fehr ensured the Penguins' futility would remain intact by completing a pretty give-and-go with linemate Jason Chimera 12 minutes into the third period. Fehr raced in alone on Fleury and beat him high on the glove side.
"Their D was stepping up, so I just tried to go for a rush and Chimer made a good pass," Fehr said. "We really weren't trying to go for offense at that point, we just wanted to play defense, but I was definitely happy I could score."
He wasn't alone.