In just four years, the Winter Classic has gone from an event celebrated primarily for its novelty and spectacle to an opportunity for the league to kick off the its national over-the-air broadcast schedule by featuring some of the game's best teams and matchups. Never has that been the case so much as tonight, as the Capitals and Penguins met in a game that featured not only the game's two most recognizable players, but also an ongoing, heated rivalry that gave fans a game featuring a fight, seventy hits, multiple facewash-full scrums, and the teams turning their backs and leaving the ice, rather than shaking hands as past Winter Classic participants have done.
Yes, this rivalry is alive and well alright, and for one night on a national stage, the Capitals have the upper hand. In the long term (or even the short term, given that the teams meet again in early February) it might not end up meaning all that much, but that doesn't change that the Caps most important, most high-profile game of the 2010-11 season was also the one that was the most fun.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Early in the first period, Penguins' winger Craig Adams created a scoring opportunity for the Capitals by sending the puck softly up the boards to be picked off by Alex Ovechkin. The reason? He was expecting to be hit by Ovechkin and, as a result, bailed on the play. That's the power of aggressive play and forwards who are willing to hit, and why forecheckers should be looking to initiate contact every time the puck is deep in the opposition's end.
- In this game, every once in a while you wind up getting an assist for a play where you don't really do much - a dump in that a teammate picks up, or a puck that bounces off your leg and a guy in front, something like that. And every once in a while you make a great play that should result in a goal and doesn't, like the pickoff and pass from Marcus Johansson to Jason Chimera. Obviously that didn't yield anything of the scoresheet for MarJo, but it's a play that deserves to noted.
- Speaking of the benefits of hard forechecking, and speaking of Marcus Johansson making great plays, his play on the midhandle by Marc-Andre Fleury and the subsequent pass in front to Eric Fehr was a great example of heady play and a great example of why you put in effort on the forecheck. I wouldn't necessarily bet on it, but I also wouldn't be surprised if we look back on this game as the time the rest of the league started to take note of Johansson.
- Two other Caps who might be getting a little more attention after tonight's game? Karl Alzner and John Carlson, who played 24:25 and 26:28, respectively, and faced Sidney Crosby (and Evgeni Malkin) more often than any other Washington defensemen. If the Caps can have those two go up against that kind of competition and succeed, Mike Green anchor another pair, and a third pairing comprised of two of the three of Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, and Scott Hannan (with John Erskine on fill-in duty), they're in fantastic shape.
- The first period fight between John Erskine and Michael Rupp was exactly what you want to see from a hockey scrap: both guys were willing participants, it was evenly matched, neither guy dropped the gloves early to try and get an advantages, and it came during the natural flow of play.
- Of the 50 shots the Capitals attempted, 32 (64%) made it through to Marc-Andre Fleury. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, attempted 66 shots and put 33 (50%) of them on net.
- "Um, excuse me, sir, but would you mind coming out from there?" is an awfully unusual reaction for a hockey team to have towards a guy who has just collided with their goalie and wound up in their net, and the fact Pittsburgh more or less had that reaction to Brooks Laich means that Laich is extraordinarily charming. Or that he was in the net because a Pens player put him there and there's no way he should have been sent to the box on that play. One or the other.
- It'd be hard to find a better example of a "good penalty" than John Erskine's second period hook on Maxime Talbot.
- One issue with taking the game outside that isn't discussed enough is how difficult it can be for a goalie to adjust to the change in perspective. Sure, it's the same size rink, but having the stands so far back and empty space immediately outside the boards is more than enough to throw a player off, and that fact their neither Semyon Varlamov nor Marc-Andre Fleury allowed any soft goals is a testament to just how good NHL goalies really are.
- The Capital with the least ice time was Eric Fehr, who skated 9:55. The Penguins, on the other hand, had three skates (Craig Adams, Michael Rupp, and Aaron Asham) who skated 8:13 or less. In a game as intense as this one (especially when playing in the elements is considered) having faith in your depth can sometimes be the difference, and it's nice to know the Capitals can dress twelve forwards who can contribute every shift - even when several of them might be in Hershey were everyone healthy.
As much fun as the Winter Classic was, in some ways it has been a shadow over the Caps season to this point, serving as much as a distraction as a source of motivation. Now's the time of the year the team needs to bear down and focus on hockey because now's the time of the year good teams look to start becoming great - when the spotlight's off them, when they correct their mistakes through diligence and hard work; when other are tempted to give in to the grind of a long season.
Let's see if the Caps have what it takes to become great.