PITTSBURGH | It wasn't quite the made-for-TV showcase of the league's biggest names in the brisk conditions many experts thought the 2011 Winter Classic would be, but the Capitals didn't seem to mind.
In front of a soggy 68,111 fans at Heinz Field, Washington got a pair of goals from Eric Fehr to take a 3-1 win over the Penguins in a game that had its original start time delayed seven hours because of steady rain.
The two stars that got most of the attention leading into the game, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, were both held pointless in a game that featured fairly heavy rain at times under unusually warm temperatures for New Year's Day in the Steel City.
The Penguins jumped ahead 2:13 into the second period on Evgeni Malkin's goal, but the Capitals answered back less than five minutes later with a Mike Knuble goal scored during a scrum in front of the Pittsburgh cage. Fehr scored the eventual game-winner with 5:15 left in the frame after a misplayed puck by Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury led to a wide-open net.
Fehr added an insurance goal in the third to give Washington its third straight win after falling to Pittsburgh in a shootout at Verizon Center on Dec. 23.
"It felt unbelievable," Fehr said. "The first time we came out for the first period there, the fans were loud, and it was just everything you kind of dreamed of. It was a perfect night. Nice and dark outside, with the lights, it was great."
With the temperature reading 51.7 degrees at the start of the game despite an 8 p.m. face-off, the ice was noticeably waterlogged, with Ovechkin wiping out late in the first period while winding up to take a shot. Still, the two teams generated some good scoring chances at both ends, and both squads had shots ring off the post, but Washington netminder Semyon Varlamov and Fleury made some nice saves to keep the game scoreless through 20 minutes.
But the Penguins brought the home fans to their feet early in the second period.
Shortly after Fleury stopped Ovechkin on a breakaway, Malkin was able to cash in on a similar play by blasting a puck past Varlamov for a 1-0 Penguins lead. Pittsburgh then got a man advantage just :46 after the tally, but Washington was able to kill off the Brooks Laich goaltender interference call, and then momentum began to shift to the visitors.
On a scramble in front of the Penguins' cage, Knuble was able to poke the puck in the net and draw Washington even at the 6:54 mark. Following the equalizer, the Capitals began to press for the go-ahead goal, and Jason Chimera had a golden chance to score with just under 9 minutes to play on a wrap-around attempt, but Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik thwarted the chance with a nice defensive play.
But the difference in the contest was created by a miscue by Fleury, as the netminder misplayed the puck behind his own net. Marcus Johansson picked up the loose puck and fed it out front to Fehr, who banged the puck into the open net.
"I think [Fleury] turned the puck over behind the net, and I just went in front and got a good pass [from Johansson] and was able to put it in," Fehr said.
Late in the second period, the rainfall began to pick up, and the ice conditions began to worsen. Crews had to push the standing water on the ice over to the sides of the rink, and by the time the third period started, the precipitation was a steady rain that had the officials frequently checking with Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior vice president and director of hockey operations, on possibly halting the contest.
"It was the same conditions for both teams," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters afterward. "At every stoppage, Colin and [ice expert] Dan Craig were in communication with the officials and both teams, and nobody was complaining about it."
"The conditions were all right," Crosby said later. "I think when it started to come down pretty good there, you could see the puck started to bounce even a little bit more."
Despite the weather, Fehr added his second of the night shortly after the teams switched ends at the 10-minute mark of the third period because of the somewhat uneven conditions of the ice, taking a pass from Chimera and breaking in and beating Fleury with 8:01 to play in regulation.
"I saw [Chimera] had the puck and the defense was stepping up, so I just tried to go for a rush and [he] made a good pass," Fehr said.
Varlamov held the Penguins off the board for the remainder of the contest, making 32 stops and delivering the win.
"[Varlamov] played really well," Fehr said. "Seemed like he was seeing the pucks. You could tell [the Penguins] were trying to get traffic in front. Our defense did a really good job of boxing out and giving him an opportunity to see most of the shots."
"It shows that he can play in pressure situations," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said of his netminder. "He sort of just took it mentally on him that he wasn't going to allow anything. He's in pretty good zone right now after shutting out Montreal in the last game."
For Washington as well, the end of the Winter Classic marks the end of having a bright spotlight on the club, with HBO's cameras following the team around for its series "24/7: Penguins-Capitals."
"We didn't like them much at the beginning of the month [when the team was on an eight-game losing streak], but I think everything's worked out," Boudreau joked.
So, while it didn't quite play out as people thought it would, it certainly proved to be a memorable night for the Caps and the roughly one-third of the sellout crowd who made the trip to western Pennsylvania.
"You can see, you can hear when we score goals how many people [were Washington fans]. I can see a thousand people in one spot, a thousand people upstairs; it was really unbelievable," Ovechkin said.
And, with all the buildup to the game, it was a unique experience for the players on both teams.
"Coming down the tunnel, it's a pretty amazing feeling," Crosby, who also played in the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo, said. "Playing hockey in front of that many people, it's something that probably none of us ever dreamed of doing. Would have been nice to be on the other side of things, but it's still a privilege to be part of that."
"It was pretty cool," Boudreau said. "When you walk and you see those people in there, and whether they're booing or cheering, it's an experience I'll never forget. And when you come into this kind of atmosphere and you're playing arguably the best team in the league and you win, it was more than just a game to everybody."
"It was one of the best feelings in my life," Ovechkin said. "When you see it's sold out, it's like I can't imagine when football players play every game like this. It's unbelievable."
WINTER CLASSIC NOTES: Washington's John Erskine and Pittsburgh's Mike Rupp were involved in the second fight in the fourth installment of the Winter Classic series, putting on a memorable bout in the first period. ... Road teams have now won three out of four Winter Classics, with only Boston's 2-1 overtime win at Fenway Park being the difference. ... Washington wore a replica of its throwback jersey from its inaugural season of 1974-75, complete with red pants. Pittsburgh wore a hybrid retro jersey, combining its first logo from 1967-68 with the base of its first uniform design. ... Steelers legend Jerome Bettis dropped the ceremonial first puck.
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