Lesser-lights Fehr, Varlamov shine as Caps take wet Winter Classic 3-1

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Faced with conditions more suitable for a football game, the Washington Capitals dug in and gutted out a victory in a fashion that is pretty familiar to fans at Heinz Field.

A Winter Classic billed as a head-to-head matchup between superstars Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby ended up being won with contributions from lesser lights and an overall commitment to defence—a style the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers have practically patented while claiming six Super Bowls.

Eric Fehr scored twice and Semyon Varlamov stopped 31 shots as Washington won on the NHL’s biggest regular-season stage, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in front of 68,111 pumped-up fans Saturday.

The Capitals are loaded with as much offensive talent as any team in the league, but you would never have known it when they were protecting a one-goal lead and rain started falling hard. Their strategy went exactly to plan.

“We thought it was just going to be a grind-it-out game because after we were on the ice yesterday, it didn’t look like the ice conditions would be great,” said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. “So we knew the fancy tic-tac-toe stuff wasn’t going to work. We knew we had to dump it in, and we had to win the game below the circles.

“And I thought we did a real good job of that.”

It wasn’t pretty and it didn’t have to be.

The unseasonable weather pushed the annual outdoor game into prime time and gave two players that are still looking to establish their place in the Caps lineup a rare moment in the spotlight. Fehr was a healthy scratch as recently as last week and Varlamov has battled Michal Neuvirth for starts since returning from injury in November.

“It was a great game for me and I was very honoured that the coach let me play,” Varlamov said through a translator. “It was a great celebration for all of us.”

Washington managed to keep Crosby off the scoresheet—the first time that’s happened in consecutive games for the NHL’s scoring leader all season. His most notable moment came when he was hammered by David Steckel in the dying moments of the second period on a play that might warrant some attention from league disciplinarian Colin Campbell.

However, it was unclear whether Steckel even intended to throw the hit.

“I couldn’t even tell you what happened,” said Crosby. “I think the puck was going the other way and I turned and next thing I know, I’m down. … It was pretty far behind the play.”

Ovechkin didn’t fare much better after also being held pointless in the game. It wasn’t the least bit evident in the enthusiasm he showed afterwards.

“It was one of the best feelings in my life,” said Ovechkin. “When you see it’s sold out, it’s like I can’t imagine that football players play every game like this. It’s unbelievable. And it’s kind of the thing you want to do all the time.”

It was the fastest-paced of the NHL’s outdoor games as the bitter rivals went back and forth at one another. There was plenty of hitting, great saves at both ends and a couple nice goals despite the fact that the game was played on ice which was softened by unseasonable weather.

The temperature was a balmy 11 C when the puck was dropped and heavy rain fell during the third period—conditions more suitable for a game involving the Steelers, who normally call Heinz Field home. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman indicated the game was never in danger of being delayed or called off.

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“This is reality hockey when you take it outdoors,” said Bettman. “It becomes a little unpredictable.”

Reminders of the stadium’s football roots could be seen throughout the night. Fans tailgated for hours in the parking lot before the game and waved the Steelers signature yellow “Terrible Towels” when they got inside the building, and Evgeni Malkin even did a Lambeau-style Leap into the Penguins bench after opening the scoring.

It was a pretty good taste of what it’s like for football players on any given Sunday.

“It’s pretty easy to see why you see those guys are so pumped up every week,” said Crosby. “Coming down the tunnel, it was a pretty amazing feeling. And playing hockey in front of that many people, it’s something that probably none of us ever dreamed of doing.”

Not long after Malkin put Pittsburgh ahead 1-0,the estimated 30,000 Caps fans in attendance got a chance to make themselves heard. A large roar went up when Mike Knuble shovelled the puck behind Marc-Andre Fleury at 6:54 of the second period.

Fehr’s first goal of the game came before the period ended and gave Washington the chance to go into full shutdown mode in the third period. The team only put four shots on goal in the final 20 minutes.

“When we got the lead, I think the whole team was concentrated … on playing more defensive,” said Ovechkin. “We had the puck, crossed the red-line and got the puck in deep. If we had a chance to go (the) attack, we made a simple play.”

When the final buzzer sounded, the Caps poured onto the ice and mobbed one another in a corner of the rink—the kind of victory celebration rarely seen at this stage of the regular season.

Both teams have had a pretty tumultuous month while being followed by HBO’s all-access crews for the “24/7” series and preparing for the Winter Classic itself. The Caps in particular struggled—going windless for eight games in December—but now see to be out of the funk.

With Saturday’s victory, they find themselves just two points behind Pittsburgh for first overall in the Eastern Conference. On top of that, they got to leave Heinz Field with a win they won’t soon forget.

“It was a month-long buildup where it didn’t start out very good at all,” said Boudreau. “This is like as close to the Stanley Cup as we’ve gotten. And we’re not denying that it was more than just two points. It was a fabulous game.

“We came in wanting to win this thing. We got lucky and we won it.”

Notes:The NHL will go outdoors again soon when Montreal and Calgary square off at McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20 … Chris Conner was taken out of the Pittsburgh lineup to make room for Jordan Staal, who played his first game of the season … The Caps are 4-0-0 against Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day … The Penguins are 12-7-3 in regular-season games against Washington since Crosby and Ovechkin entered the NHL … Eight Penguins played their second career outdoor game. Chimera was the only Washington player appearing in his second.