A Prime Time Winter Classic: Retro Recap – Washington Capitals @ Pittsburgh Penguins – January 1, 2011

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images North America

The 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic game between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins that took place on New Year’s Day 2011 was a greatly-hyped game. In just three years of existence, the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic was already a New Year’s tradition that garnered a great deal of media coverage.

Prelude

Both teams were longtime rivals, with the rivalry’s intensity having been renewed with the renaissance of both teams, that coincided with the arrival of their two young superstars, the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and Penguins’ Sidney Crosby.

Three months before the game, the NHL and HBO Sports announced they would cover the Capitals and Penguins as part of the “24/7” reality TV series, filming the two teams as part of a groundbreaking, four-episode series leading up to the Winter Classic.  It was the first time HBO Sports divided its cameras between two teams and also the first time the network documented teams in the middle of their regular seasons.

The game was originally supposed to start at 1:00 P.M., but due to the weather forecast for Pittsburgh (rain at the originally scheduled time), the game was pushed back to 8:00 P.M.

Going into the game, the Capitals had played well, winning their last two and four of their last five games, after breaking out of their “24/7” documented eight-game losing streak. Their record was now 22-12-5 and they were in first place in the Southeast Division. The Penguins, meanwhile, were 25-11-3.

The crowd at Heinz Field (home of the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers) was nearly 70,000 (68,111 to be exact), which included numerous Capitals’ fans. The Capitals sold 20,000 tickets to their own fans and then 7,000-10,000 Capitals fans had obtained tickets to the game on the secondary market.

This game would be the first game that the Penguins’ third-line center, Jordan Staal, had played during the 2010-11 season. He injured his foot in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, an injury that required surgery. He spent the summer and the first month of the season recovering. He was two days away from returning when he fractured his hand in practice and needed surgery for that injury as well.

Then-Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau started Semyon Varlamov in goal, while the Penguins started longtime starter Marc-Andre Fleury. Varlamov had, at that juncture in the season, started all the games for the Caps since December 26, as fellow goaltender Michal Neuvirth felt sore after warmups that day.

 First Period

Alex Ovechkin would get the energy started by delivering an early hit on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek within the first five minutes of the game. The hit rattled the glass out of place and required repairs.

About eight minutes after the start of the game, Capitals defenseman John Erskine and Penguins forward Mike Rupp dropped the gloves for a fight. Rupp started the fight hard, landing three punches to Erskine’s head and knocked him down, however Erskine got back up and landed two good hits.

The Caps jumped out to an 11-3 lead in shots, but Fleury turned them all back. The Penguins ended up getting more shots as the period progressed and Varlamov made 16 first period saves. The Capitals meanwhile, ended with 12 shots for the period.

Second Period

Early in the middle frame, Ovechkin had a breakaway opportunity, switching from his forehand to his backhand and tried to beat Fleury glove-side, but he was denied on an incredible save. Fleury then passed the puck to defenseman Kris Letang, who made a great pass to forward Evgeni Malkin, who scored his 14th goal of the season on a breakaway of his own and his first goal in six games. Malkin’s goal came at the 2:13 mark of the period and put the Penguins ahead 1-0.

Soon after Malkin’s goal (and nearly three minutes into the period) the Capitals’ Brooks Laich was assessed a penalty for goaltender interference, which the Caps were fortunately able to kill off.

The Capitals soon got a power play of their own around the six-minute mark, as Pens forward Maxime Talbot was penalized for holding. The visitors were were able to cash in at 6:54.

After receiving the puck from defenseman Mike Green, Capitals Center Nicklas Backstrom took a shot and several Caps scrambled near the net to try to get the rebound. Right wing Mike Knuble poked the puck under Fleury’s glove for the game-tying goal.

With just over five minutes to go in the period, Fleury bobbled the puck behind his net. Capitals rookie forward Marcus Johansson then fished it from behind the net and sent it out front to right wing Eric Fehr, who fired a shot into the open net to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead.

The Penguins appeared to tie the game late in the period when, on a three-on-two breakaway, forward Craig Adams buried the puck. However, the referee ruled that Rupp, who had skated through the crease, was not allowing Varlamov to play the puck. As a result, the score remained at 2-1 going into the second intermission.

Near the end of the period, Capitals forward David Steckel laid an open-ice hit on Sidney Crosby. Crosby gingerly skated off the ice and hunched down behind the Penguins’ bench to get his wind back. He went to the locker room under his own power and was back for the third period.

For the period, Washington had taken 16 shots to Pittsburgh’s eight.

Third Period

The first two periods were played under relatively clear skies. However, the rain started for the third period and became a downpour throughout the rest of the game. Halfway through the period, the two teams switched sides. This was so both teams would deal with the different visibility and weather conditions in a more equal manner.

Down by one goal, Pittsburgh came out firing, hoping for a comeback.  Early in the third period, Varlamov made key saves on shots by both Malkin and Chris Kunitz.

With about eight minutes to go, Fehr scored his second goal of the game, a much-needed insurance goal for the Caps. Erskine grabbed the puck from behind the net and passed it quickly to forward Jason Chimera, who was positioned on the half-boards. Chimera skated up to the blueline and passed to Fehr, who skated down the ice, shot the puck past Fleury to put the Capitals ahead 3-1.

Ovechkin appeared to score a goal for the Capitals with 3:43 left in the third. However, the referees whistled a no-goal, as they determined that Ovechkin had interfered with Fleury behind the net.

The Caps’ 3-1 lead held up as the final score.

Both Crosby and Ovechkin were held off the scoresheet and were still tied at 571 career points for their NHL careers. In the shot department, Pittsburgh ended up with 33 shots and one goal, with nine third period shots. The Capitals ended the game with three goals on 32 shots, with four shots in the third period. Pittsburgh had four power plays and scored on none of them, while the Capitals had two power plays and scored on one of them.

Game highlights can be seen below.

Aftermath

When the game was over, the Capitals were 23-12-5 and continued a three-game winning streak, while the Penguins’ record now stood at 25-12-3. The media was impressed with the number of Capitals fans in attendance at the game, as the team had sold out their season ticket allotment of nearly 20,000. Additionally, nearly 10,000 more Washington fans had obtained tickets on the secondary market.

One of the topics of conversation was Ovechkin’s ongoing offensive slump, which continued through the Winter Classic. One reason attributed to his slump was the strategy opposing teams would use to shut him down, and how little he seemed to adjust in response.

Defensemen were stepping up on him while one or more forwards would apply pressure from behind. He would often get the puck stripped away when cutting from the outside to a more prime scoring area. Defensemen playing closer to him would make it hard for him to get his shot off.

Another reason attributed to his slump was the fact he had not mentally recovered from Russia’s loss in the 2010 Olympics or the Capitals’ first round playoff elimination in the 2010 playoffs.

Despite the head hit from Steckel to Crosby, he was in the lineup for the team’s next game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on January 5. In that game, he was driven head first into the boards by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman. He finished that game and traveled to Montreal for their next game, but was diagnosed with a concussion and did not return for the remainder of the season or play in the postseason, and missed the first 20 games of the 2011-12 season. Steckel’s original hit, thus, became more controversial.

Steckel said after the game, “I didn’t even know that I hit him. I was coming back with the 3-on-3 and when the puck went the other way I was facing one way and I came back joined the rush. I didn’t even know it was him until I looked back. I haven’t even seen the hit yet, obviously, it wasn’t intentional. I was just trying to get up to the play and he was there when I turned around I guess.”

By Diane Doyle

Further Reading
NHL.com — NHL HBO Announce 24-7 Series Featuring Capitals Penguins Winter Classic
NHL.com — Penguins Look Back 2011 Winter Classic
Washington Post: Winter Classic — Capitals Beat Penguins 3-1 as Fehr Scores Two
Washington Post: Caps Get Big Time Exposure in Winter Classic Game With Pittsburgh
Washington Post: Ovechkin Works on Ending Offensive Slump
Gallery of Winter Classic Game Photos from Penguins Web Site
Gallery of Winter Classic Pregame Photos from Penguin Web Site
Many Goals And A Decade Ago: A Look Back at the Washington Capitals’ 2010-11 Season
Tribute to Eric Fehr
Washington Post Winter Classic Index
New York Times Story on Winter Classic 2011

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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