As the Washington Capitals players debarked at the loading dock near the home plate entrance at Nationals Park on Thursday morning, the extravagant stage of the annual Winter Classic upon them, Troy Brouwer teased his teammates that such a setting would provide an opportunity to make a statement and put on a show.
The game likely would serve as the highlight of many players’ regular season — the one they had circled when the schedule was released, one in which they would round up dozens of tickets to distribute to family and friends, one where they could face off against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Brouwer played for the Blackhawks for five seasons, including the Winter Classic in 2009, and knew about the pageantry and the enjoyment of playing outdoors. He knew about playing under the open sky, in front of a massive audience, against one of the league’s more successful franchises.
Thus, as players shuffled from their bus across the concourse and into the park’s home clubhouse, he called on them to raise their games, delivering his sentiment as more chide than challenge.
“And he did it,” left wing Alex Ovechkin quipped.
Brouwer flipped a puck past Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford with 12.9 seconds remaining, foiling Chicago’s comeback attempt and allowing Washington to walk off with a victory in what has arguably become the NHL’s marquee event.
The Capitals’ reliable second-line right wing, Brouwer was among a number of players who had family members fly in for the event, with his parents, Don and Kathy, making the coast-to-coast trek from British Columbia for the start of the new year to watch the game in person.
It was the first time Don saw his son play in person since the Blackhawks traded Brouwer to the Capitals during the summer of 2011. A year earlier, as Chicago marched to its first Stanley Cup in 49 years, Don was recovering from a stroke that left him hospitalized for much of the championship series.
The two didn’t chat immediately after Thursday’s game — Don sent his son a text message that, nearly an hour after it had ended, went unanswered — as Brouwer chose to save those moments for when they reunited at his home.
“Knowing how my dad is right now, he’s probably got a couple tears,” Brouwer said.
Brouwer’s goal was more a product of circumstance than skill, considering the situation. On the power play for the final 1:13, the Capitals hadn’t registered a quality shot as time wore down until Ovechkin skated down the left side of the ice, past the blue line and into the left circle.
Ovechkin, who scored 11:58 into the first period to give Washington a two-goal advantage, sized up a shot and cocked his stick. It shattered as Ovechkin tried to follow through, with Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad slashing it to break up the attempt.
With the puck lying free, Brouwer, trailing Ovechkin on the play, turned and spotted it. He spun toward the net and scooped the puck between Saad and right wing Marian Hossa, beating Crawford to the goaltender’s left and sending the Capitals’ bench — and the 42,832 in attendance — into a frenzy.
“I think it was kind of like an old Capitals celebration,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “When we were a little younger, we used to jump around [like that]. Obviously, lots of emotions when you get those two points and score when there’s only 12 seconds left.”
Until Brouwer’s goal, much of the afternoon seemed poised to end in disappointment. Eric Fehr, whose two goals three years prior helped the visiting Capitals defeat Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic, provided an early feel-good moment by scoring seven minutes in. Ovechkin’s goal, just shy of five minutes later, only intensified that exhilaration.
Still, Chicago chipped away, trimming its deficit with Patrick Sharp’s power play goal 13:36 into the first period and erasing it when Saad scored 3:15 into the second. Though the Capitals killed off 91 seconds of 5-on-3 midway through that period, a late call against defenseman Matt Niskanen for boarding with just over three minutes to play tilted the game in Chicago’s direction.
Washington didn’t break. Braden Holtby, who turned away 33 shots, was challenged just once, and two seconds after Niskanen emerged from the penalty box, Toews went in it, cited for hooking on Karl Alzner. That allowed Brouwer to scoop the puck, and then score, and then send him back to his home in Arlington, where his father would finally get the response and the embrace he awaited.
“How everything played out is definitely going to be a memorable day, a memorable event,” Brouwer said. “The entire lead-up to this has been a lot of fun, and the finish couldn’t have worked out any better.”