Friday, July 08, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Pittsburgh, January 1st

Halfway through the ten games that mattered, we come almost to the half-way mark of the season, perhaps to the most eagerly anticipated regular season game in quite some time…

January 1, 2011: Washington (22-12-5) at Pittsburgh (25-11-3)

Result: Capitals 3 – Penguins 1

The Background: From the day that it was announced that the Caps and Penguins would meet in the fourth Bridgestone Winter Classic – May 28, 2010 – this game was the one that had almost every hockey fan circling “January 1st” in red ink on their calendars. And when HBO announced in September that it would partner with the NHL to produce a four-episode series for the “24/7” reality franchise that would cover the run-up to the Classic, it was anticipation on steroids.

The HBO series provided the appropriate narrative as lead in to the game – a struggling Capitals team finally finding its way back to the win column; the Penguins a happy band of hockey players sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings. Each team led by their own megawatt star – Alex Ovechkin for Washington and Sidney Crosby for Pittsburgh – but backed up in each instance by a quirky supporting cast, whether playing pranks on teammates in hotels or tooling around in a Vespa.

It was perhaps fitting that the game itself would be unique, even by Winter Classic standards. Thanks to uncooperative weather in Pittsburgh, the game would be postponed from its 1:00 start to 8:00, making it the first Classic to be played under the lights.

Why It Mattered: Not a trivial consideration, the Caps would come into the game on a 4-0-1 run (the lone loss a shootout loss to Pittsburgh), while the Penguins were on their own 4-1-1 run. Only four points separated the two, and one could see this not only as the latest installment of the Winter Classic, but as a prelude to a potential Eastern Conference final matchup.

Heinz Field fairly sparkled under the night sky and, unfortunately, an intermittent rain. It didn’t seem to bother the 68,111 in attendance though. Those fans were treated to an evenly-played, up-and-down the ice affair in the first period that featured a fight (John Erskine and Mike Rupp) for good measure. If there had to be a concern for Caps fans, it was that even though the Penguins were awarded only one power play in the first period, the Penguins managed to record five shots on goal, all of them turned away by goalie Semyon Varlamov.

The Penguins’ persistence was rewarded early in the second when Evgeny Malkin scored on the Penguins’ 18th shot of the game (second in the second period) at 2:13, moments after at the other end Penguin goalie Marc-Andre Fleury foiled Alex Ovechkin on a partial breakaway. Mike Knuble got it back for the Caps later in the period when he jammed in a loose puck as part of a scrum in the Penguin crease as Pittsburgh was trying to kill off a power play.

Then things fell apart for the Penguins – for this game, and perhaps their season. Eric Fehr put the Caps in front when Marc-Andre Fleury roamed behind his net to play the puck and lost track of it. Marcus Johansson got to the puck before Fleury could locate it, then threw it out in front before taking a hit from Deryk Engelland. The puck ended up on Fehr’s stick, who only had to wrist it into the net before Fleury could maneuver back to his crease.

But neither Malkin’s goal, nor those of Knuble and Fehr were the biggest play of the period – or the season. In the dying seconds of the second period, the Caps took possession of the puck, and Karl Alzner moved it up ice to try to start something the other way. Sidney Crosby tried to block the clear, but missed, then turned to follow the play. In doing so, he turned into the path of David Steckel, trying to rush up ice himself with Matt Hendricks on his left. The paths of Crosby and Steckel crossed, and with Crosby’s head turned to see where the play was leading, he was unprepared for the collision he had with Steckel. He was knocked to the ice as time expired in the period, and he was plainly in distress as the teams headed off for the intermission.  It was an unfortunate moment that would reverberate for weeks to come.

In what only might happen in hockey, Crosby retuned for the third period and not only played, but recorded 9:28 in ice time, the most by period for Crosby in this game. What perhaps no one knew was that Crosby – at the time the leading goal scorer and point getter in the league, and the odds-on favorite for the Hart Trophy as MVP – was about to see his season end. He would dress and skate for 19 minutes in his next game, against Tampa Bay, but a hit he sustained in that game when boarded by Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman would effectively end his season, the victim of the concussion perhaps sustained with Steckel's hit and exacerbated by Hedman's.

In that third period, the Penguins got caught once more with their hand in the cookie jar when Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr were working the puck through the neutral zone. When Fehr passed the puck to Chimera on the left wing, Penguin defenseman Paul Martin got caught peeking a little too long at the pass and lost Fehr charging down the middle behind him. Chimera found Fehr breaking past Martin, leaving Fehr with the puck with nothing but clear (if soggy) ice between himself and Fleury. Fehr wristed the puck over Fleury’s left shoulder to provide the final margin in a 3-1 win.

The Takeaway: Where to start. First, it wasn’t just the game, but the look that fans got at two teams behind the scenes in mid-season, courtesy of HBO’s 24/7 series. It was entertaining and almost a lock to be an annual companion to the game itself. There was the nighttime aspect, which gave the game a very different look from that of the other three Classics, and one would not be surprised if occasionally the NHL and NBC (or whoever the television partner is) has a nighttime telecast of this event.

The aftermath of this contest was not kind to either team. The Caps lost four of their next five games and would be shut out twice. The Penguins would lose three of their next four, but more important would lose their captain and the league’s best player for the rest of the season, his career going forward still in doubt.

The game itself was unremarkable by hockey standards. Yes, it did pit two well-known rivals against one another, but it didn’t produce memorable moments – the SportsCenter save or the player making an end to end rush. It had unlikely heroes – Semyon Varlamov stopping 32 of 33 shots and Eric Fehr recording his first two-goal game of the season – but it was what it was, a hockey game in January. Perhaps a little more hotly contested under the circumstances, but not really rising to the intensity or competitiveness of a Stanley Cup playoff game.

The game was made more memorable by what surrounded it – reality TV, a game played outdoors at night, and of course, 68,000 fans of both teams yelling their lungs out. But in that sense, it was not just “a hockey game in January,” but hockey as spectacle, and that is why the 2011 Winter Classic as to be on the list of games that mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)

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