Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 2, 2011

A Little Rain Doesn’t Dampen Winter Classic Enthusiasm

Before more than 68,000 cheering fans goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Marc-Andre Fleury led the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins onto the ice at Heinz Field Saturday night for the fourth annual NHL Winter Classic. Rain throughout the afternoon in Pittsburgh pushed the start time for the annual outdoor hockey game back to 8 p.m. That probably worked to the NHL’s advantage as it gave the league a prime-time audience for the sport’s biggest event outside of the Stanley Cup Finals. Early reports have NBC winning the night’s ratings war among the coveted 18-49 age bracket. Thanks to the network’s ubiquitous cameras, that audience got to see one of the Penguins holding his left hand over his right breast as the national anthem was sung by 10-year old Jackie Evancho. Oh well, one can only expect so much from hockey players.

Once the puck was dropped the fans both in the stands and on their couches got to see a tight match between two Eastern Conference teams that have developed a major rivalry. Washington carried the action early, keeping Fleury busy in the Pittsburgh net. At one point the Caps had outshot the Penguins 7-1. But after Pittsburgh’s Michael Rupp and Washington’s John Erskine dropped the gloves and went at each other midway through the first period, the Penguins seemed to gain some energy. By the end of a scoreless first period they had outshot Washington 16-12.

The rain returned toward the end of the first period, and was present in varying degrees throughout the rest of the contest. While the precipitation was the focus of much discussion by NBC’s announcing crew, the players reported after the game that the ice actually firmed up a bit as the evening wore on.

Early in the second period Fleury saved a shot from Alexander Ovechkin and directed the puck to defenseman Kris Letang, who immediately found center Evgeni Malkin racing past Washington’s defenders. With a clean chance on the breakaway Malkin beat Varlamov with a wrist shot between the pads.

Less than five minutes later Mike Knuble evened the score while Washington was on the power play. Knuble managed to find the puck in the midst of a wild scrum in front of the Pittsburgh net and slip it past Fleury.

In the run-up to the game most of the focus was understandably on the two superstars, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Ovechkin. But both were held in check Saturday night. Instead, the unlikely hero was the Capitals’ winger Eric Fehr. Fehr came into the league the same year as Crosby and Ovechkin. The latter two have matched each other through five plus seasons, with a combined total of more than 500 goals, and an identical total of 571 points each. Fehr has 43 career goals and 88 points. None were any bigger than the two he notched in the open air on Saturday. First he took advantage of a loose play behind the net by Fleury to put the puck into an unguarded net with a little over five minutes left in the middle period. Then he gave the Capitals some breathing room when he beat Fleury again midway through the third.

With the 3-1 victory Washington has now won five of its last six games, after suffering through an eight game winless streak. While Ovechkin’s personal scoring drought persists and remains something of a mystery, the team as a whole seems to have righted itself and is poised for a solid push through the remainder of the regular season and on into the playoffs. The Penguins too look capable of a serious run for another Stanley Cup. While they came up short at Heinz Field, they have been the hottest team in hockey for most of the season.

But the big winner Saturday night was the NHL. Hockey has long been the fourth of the North American team sports, and a distant fourth at that in terms of fan support. While one annual outdoor game isn’t going to change that all by itself, this year’s Winter Classic enabled the league to showcase its two biggest stars, two powerful teams, and the game of hockey itself. Winning coach Bruce Boudreau said “It was more than just a game to everybody. Don’t let anybody fool you. It was a game that we wanted to show people who had never played hockey or watched hockey how good it can be, how exciting it can be.” No, the conditions weren’t ideal; but that’s the obvious risk one takes in moving the game outdoors. As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the contest, “this is reality hockey when you take it outdoors. It becomes a little unpredictable.” For a sport hoping to expand its fan base, a little unpredictable is not necessarily a bad thing.

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