WASHINGTON (AP) — A bit too much sunshine filled the sky at the opening faceoff of the Winter Classic, and seat cushions rained down when the winning goal was scored just before the final whistle.
The replica of the U.S. Capitol in center field was a nice touch, given that the real thing is obscured by scaffolding because of ongoing repairs.
Alex Ovechkin, the player most responsible for making the nation’s capital worthy of hosting the NHL’s annual outdoor game, scored a goal, and he was also among the first to mob teammate Troy Brouwer when Brouwer’s power-play goal decided the game with 12.9 seconds to play Thursday.
The NHL showcase was every bit the thrill for the host Washington Capitals, who beat the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 on New Year’s Day.
“We start talking about Winter Classic since we started the season, and this is it,” Ovechkin said. “I remember Brouwie said it’s a good time to show up and make a show. And he did.”
Brouwer scored against his former team to cap a chaotic sequence. Ovechkin had his stick broken on a slash by Brandon Saad. While Ovechkin was raising his hands to make sure the officials would the call the penalty, Brouwer gathered the loose puck in the left circle.
“Somebody had to try and keep it alive, so I just kind of turned around, threw it to the net,” Brouwer said. “I’m not even sure where it went in, but I heard the noise of the crowd, heard the noise of the guys on the ice.”
What a noise it was, a playoff-level celebration by players on the ice and fans in the stands, many of whom flung their commemorative Winter Classic seat cushions high into the air.
It was even more special for Brouwer because his father, who suffered a stroke in 2010, made the rare trip to see his son play in person.
“Knowing how my dad is, right now he’s probably got a couple of tears,” Brouwer said.
The seventh Winter Classic drew 42,832 to Nationals Park, an exclamation point to an event that helped validate D.C. as an established hockey town. Players stood on a sheet of blue ice meant to represent the Reflecting Pool during the national anthem, then faced off under a gorgeous blue sky — too gorgeous, if truth be told.
The sun’s glare on the white ice of the main rink made it difficult to see the puck, and Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner made good on his plan to play the game wearing sunglasses.
The teams switched sides at the 10-minute mark of the first period to even things out as the shadows from the stands began to cover the rink. It seemed totally unfair when Patrick Sharp launched a sun-to-shade slap shot that beat goalie Braden Holtby on a power play for Chicago’s first goal.
“I didn’t see it,” Holtby said. “First period was definitely a challenge. It was tough to pick up pucks.”
The NHL considered delaying the start, concerned that the sunny skies would compromise player safety and make the ice too soft, but the team captains and goalies mutually decided the game should go on as scheduled after testing the conditions during the pregame skate.
There was more incentive than usual this year to start on time: A lengthy postponement would have put the Classic head-to-head with the first semifinal of the new College Football Playoff.
The first goal was scored by Eric Fehr, making him the unlikely career leader in outdoor NHL hockey. Fehr’s goals can be few and far between when he is covered by a roof, but he netted twice during Washington’s 2011 Winter Classic win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field, and his breakaway in the first period on Thursday added to the disproportionate Jan. 1 output for someone who averages about eight goals per season.
Ovechkin made it 2-0 with his first outdoor goal, knocking in a rebound and prompting chants of “O-vee!” from seats that usually echo with cheers for Nationals stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
Sharp cut the deficit to one, and Saad tied it in the second period. The Blackhawks failed to do much of anything during 1:31 of 5-on-3 advantage in the second period, and the game was eventually decided by a whistle that had all the makings of a makeup call.
After Washington’s Matt Niskanen was sent off for a marginal boarding penalty with 3:11 to play, Toews was cited for an even more dicey hooking infraction with 1:13 remaining — setting the stage for Brouwer’s power-play winner.
“I don’t know how much that play deserved a call there, how much it had to do with maybe us getting a few more opportunities on the power play previously in the game,” Toews said. “It is what it is. They got their bounce they were looking for with 12 seconds or so left, and we walk away with nothing.
“It’s not a good feeling especially with the excitement, the hype and the energy that surrounded this whole thing leading up to this game.”
NOTES: The NHL is meticulous when it comes to reporting the weather for outdoor games. The league announced the opening faceoff temperature down to a tenth of a degree: 43.3 degrees. … Billy Idol, Gavin DeGraw and Lee Greenwood were among the musical guests who performed during pregame and intermissions. … The Capitals have won five of seven.
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