Monday, January 09, 2012

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 2: "A Classic Classic"

Two stories left, and for number two we go back to the beginning of 2011.

Much of the “story” of the 2011 Winter Classic took place in 2010 – the announcement of the teams, the hokey attempt at a hockey-football fusion at the press conference at Heinz Field (the site of the event) in July, the HBO 24/7 Winter Classic series, the story lines of teams going in opposite directions for much of the run-up to the game, the alumni game between legends of the Capitals and Penguins from years past.

(Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)

But there were a few things saved for the first day of the new year. The first of them was what folks feared almost as much as an injury to an important player (cue foreboding music), and that was the weather. Even this subplot has its start in the old year; early advance weather predictions called for temperatures in the low 50’s on New Year’s Day with rain showers. Not exactly the “frozen pond” folks would have wanted. The league made provisions for a postponement, having reserved Heinz Field for January 2nd. Rain – more than temperatures in the 50’s – was the concern, for either making the surface uneven and unplayable if light rain froze as it hit the ice surface or for ponding of water on the ice in the event of heavier rain. Instead of a showcase of the game in a snow globe that was the case in the inaugural Classic in Buffalo, where it snowed for much of the game, there was the potential of reducing the game to pucks rooster-tailing across the ice.

On the eve of the game, the league announced the game would be postponed from its 1:00 p.m. start on New Year’s Day to 8:00 p.m. Not that it would matter. The game started under cloudy skies and threat of rain, a threat that managed to be fulfilled not long after the puck drop. By the beginning of the third period, the rain was light, but steady, requiring that the shovels come out at play breaks, not to scrape the ice shavings from the surface, but to squeegee the ponding water off the ice. Although the night backdrop was visually stunning, especially in comparison with previous Winter Classics, the rain and off-putting glare from the ice made television viewing disappointing and playing conditions difficult, if not dangerous.

(Photos: Getty Images North America)

As for the game itself, the conditions could not douse the intensity of the rivalry. The game was barely ten minutes old when John Erskine and Mike Rupp dropped the gloves and did battle with one another. The first period was a scoreless affair, both goaltenders – Semyon Varlamov and Marc-Andre Fleury stopping 12 shots apiece. But it was the second period that turned a game, a season, and ultimately perhaps a career.

Evgeni Malkin drew first blood for the Penguins with a goal barely two minutes into the middle frame. But with Max Talbot off for holding Alex Ovechkin, Mike Knuble showed what perseverance does. Nicklas Backstrom tried to center the puck from behind the Penguin goal line, but it pinballed into the crease, where Fleury tried to control it. Unable to get a handle on the puck, Knuble kept after it, trying to jam the puck through Fleury’s pads. After several attempts, the puck slithered over the goal line to tie the game.

The game remained tied for almost eight minutes until Jason Chimera sent the puck down and around the boards from the neutral zone. Fleury tried to stop the puck behind his net, but lost it in his skates. Marcus Johansson got to the puck before Fleury could find it and flicked it in front to a wide open Eric Fehr. All Fehr had to do was send the puck on its way into the open cage, and as he did so the Caps would take a lead they would not relinquish. It would have set up an exciting third period, but there was one more play that would have far-reaching consequences.

As the last seconds of the second period were ticking away, Kark Alzner was trying to clear the puck out the Caps’ defensive zone, backhanding the puck forward from the left wing circle. Sidney Crosby tried to block the clearing attempt, but the puck eluded him. Crosby turned to see where the puck went and to move back into the play. As he did so, he circled into the path of Caps’ center David Steckel, who himself was trying to jump up into the play as the puck was leaving the Caps’ zone. The paths of Steckel (six feet, five inches tall) and Crosby (five feet, eleven inches tall) intersected at the point where Steckel’s shoulder and Crosby’s head met. Crosby – apparently unaware of where Steckel was – was hit and fell to the ice, the play continuing. The horn for the end of the period sounded moments later, and Crosby left the ice doubled over from the hit.

As the period ended and Crosby slowly made his way off the ice, it looked as if he might not return to play, but return he did, taking nine shifts and skating 9:28 in the third period. All looked well. But the effects of such hits can be delayed in coming, and when he took a hit from Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman in his next game, Crosby started exhibiting symptoms of a concussion. He would miss the remainder of the season for the Penguins.

Had Crosby not returned for the third period of this game, the last frame might have been viewed as anti-climactic. But that not being the case, there was still the matter of determining a winner of this contest. The conditions were deteriorating, and the Caps were content to play a close-to-the-vest game. Still, Pittsburgh outshot Washington, 6-2, over the first 11:53 of the period. But that sixth shot for the Penguins started a sequence that would settle the game.

Paul Martin fired a slap shot from long range that goalie Semyon Varlamov stopped, but did not control. John Erskine peeled back and collected the loose puck, circling behind the Capitals’ net. Coming out from Varlamov’s left, Erskine sent the puck up to Jason Chimera, who fed Eric Fehr coming out of the Caps’ zone. After playing it back to Chimera, then getting it back one more time, Fehr was behind the Penguin defense with the puck. Fehr skated in on Fleury and snapped a shot over the goalie’s glove and into the net, giving the Caps a 3-1 lead that, given the conditions and only eight minutes remaining, was all but insurmountable.

Pittsburgh would manage only three more shots on goal in those last eight minutes, and the Caps would close out their 3-1 win. With the game ended, the teams ushered in a new Winter Classic tradition – the “no hand shake.” While the teams participating in previous Winter Classics engaged in the practice (traditional at the end of Stanley Cup playoff series, but not in regular season contests), the Penguins left the ice without shaking hands, and the Caps left the ice smiling. Frankly, a hand shake between these teams would have seemed forced and faked. They are not teams that care much for one another, and there was still the matter of there being two more meetings between them to come in the regular season.

For the Capitals, the event was unique, a novelty, and one that players, coaches, management, and their fans will remember for all the right reasons. Winning will do that, even in a steady rain. For the Penguins, the memories of this game will be tinged by what happened to Sidney Crosby as long as he remains sidelined (after returning for eight games this season, he sustained an injury that caused a return of his concussion symptoms).

We can see where Caps fans might read this and wonder why this game is a “top story” for the team when biggest story to emerge from it was the injury to Sidney Crosby. But that it would happen against one of the Penguins’ fiercest rivals, a team that has been joined at the hip with the other for many seasons now, in the midst of a unique setting for the Classic, and that the Capitals would win this contest between such fierce rivals in their first appearance in the game makes this one of the top stories of 2011.

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