Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 2, 2015

Once Again The Winter Classic Lives Up To Its Name

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is on the road over the New Year’s holiday, which delayed this post. For the same reason, there will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule of Thursday and Sunday postings will resume next week on January 8th. A very happy New Year to one and all!

New Year’s Day dawned clear and cool in our nation’s capital. Actually the locals were more apt to emphatically describe the day as cold. But for a visitor from New England, a January 1st that began with temperatures in the 20s and saw the thermometer move steadily up to the low 40s by early afternoon was pleasantly seasonable.  However one might characterize it, there was nothing in the forecast to dissuade any of the nearly 43,000 with tickets from finding their way to lovely Nationals Park in the Southeast section of the city. For on this New Year’s Day the NHL brought the Winter Classic to Washington, D.C.

Since its inaugural in 2008 the Winter Classic has grown quickly into a television and marketing bonanza for the NHL and one of the most successful sports events of the year. The game has twice been named “Sports Event of the Year” by the SportsBusiness Journal, giving North American professional hockey a rare opportunity to beat out competition that included the Super Bowl. While the Winter Classic’s TV ratings will never approach those of the Big Game, the annual outdoor skate is by far the most watched regular season NHL contest every year.

The game has sold out wherever it has been played, including 71,000 seat Ralph Wilson Stadium, normally home to the Buffalo Bills for the first Classic, and 105,000-plus seat Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor last year. This year’s visit to the usual home of the Washington Nationals was no exception. In the days leading up to the showdown between the Washington Capitals and the visiting Chicago Blackhawks, tickets on resale websites were going for a minimum of $300.

By nothing more than coincidence or dumb luck the first six games (there was no contest in 2013 due to the league’s labor dispute) all turned out to be classics in more than just name. Four of the six contests were decided by a single goal; while the margin in the others was just two. Three went to overtime and two of those to a shootout. This year’s game only added to the growing lore of the NHL’s outdoor contest.

The field on which the temporary ice rink was built had last seen professional sport three months earlier. There, on a long October night, the hearts of Nationals fans were broken when for the second time in three seasons closer Drew Storen was unable to hold a 9th inning lead in a crucial game. Called upon after starter Jordan Zimmermann ended a string of 20 straight outs by walking the Giants Joe Panik with two gone, Storen yielded back-to-back hits that allowed Panik to score and the Giants to tie the game. The two teams played another 9 innings of extra time before San Francisco finally triumphed to take a 2-0 lead in the NLDS, on their way to an eventual World Series title.

Thursday Washington fans left Nationals Park in markedly less time and in dramatically better spirits. In a stadium decked out for the occasion, complete with a faux capitol building in deepest center field fronted by a replica of the National Mall’s reflecting pool that was actually a skating rink for children, the Caps and their visitors entertained the packed stands and the millions watching on their flat screens.

Chicago carried the action in the opening minutes, but Washington goaltender Braden Holtby was stout between the pipes. Having withstood the early onslaught it was the Capitals who struck first. Eric Fehr beat the Chicago defense and skated in alone on Corey Crawford for an unassisted tally just past the 7 minute mark, and captain Alex Ovechkin doubled the lead just a few minutes later.

But in a game of constantly shifting momentum the 2-0 lead wasn’t safe, and winger Patrick Sharp began Chicago’s comeback by scoring a power play goal on a slap shot from the left point that found its way through traffic less than two minutes after Ovechkin’s goal. Early in the 2nd period Brandon Sneed tied the contest for the visitors.

Washington’s special teams proved the difference down the stretch. The Capitals killed off a two-man Chicago advantage that ran for more than a minute and a half midway through the 2nd, and then stopped another power play late in the 3rd. Washington allowed the visitors just a single shot on net in that crucial late sequence.

With two ticks left on the last Chicago power play and just 1:13 to play in the game, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews was whistled for hooking Washington’s Karl Alzner. It was a questionable call, but then so was the last call against the Capitals. With a man advantage to the end, the team in the red sweaters stormed the offensive end. From inside the left point Ovechkin lined up a slap shot, only to see his stick break on contact with the ice. In a crucial move Washington’s superstar stayed in the play, skating on empty-handed, partially screening Crawford as behind him Troy Brouwer lined up the only shot he took all afternoon. With 12.9 seconds to play Brouwer’s wrister flew past Crawford’s left pad, sending the Capitals and their fans into a state of delirium.

The win moved Washington into third place in their Division, a point ahead of the New York Rangers. If the season ended today the Capitals would begin the Stanley Cup playoffs as the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference. Of course the NHL season is only now edging toward its midpoint, so that statistic and $1.50 is only good enough to buy a copy of the Washington Post. Still after watching their team miss the playoffs last year hope has been renewed among D.C. hockey fans.

The greatest cause for that hope was symbolized by their captain’s heads-up play in the game’s final seconds. Since arriving from Russia for the 2005-6 season, Alex Ovechkin has been a prolific scorer and one of the NHL’s most exciting individual players. But Washington hasn’t won a Stanley Cup during the Ovechkin Era; in fact the Capitals haven’t even made it to the Conference Finals.

As great as he has been individually, Ovechkin’s capacity as a team player has always been in doubt. Never was that more apparent than last year. He led the NHL in goals with 51, but his plus/minus statistic was minus-35, third worst in the league. Now Barry Trotz, Washington’s fourth coach in as many years, has his star focused on helping the Capitals win in ways other than just by putting the puck in the net. With one smart play on the outdoor rink at Nationals Park on Thursday Alex Ovechkin did just that. The immediate result was a Capitals win in this year’s Winter Classic. As satisfying as that was for Washington’s fans, the long-term result of Alex Ovechkin finally becoming a complete team player could be much, much more.

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