PITTSBURGH – The game was seven hours late. A light drizzle in the second period turned into a light rain in the third. And the ice? Well, some of the water on the rink was frozen Saturday night.
But the show went on, and the 68,111 fans still got much of what they came to see – a fight, four goals, football-crowd roars, twirling Terrible Towels – in a 3-1 victory for the Washington Capitals over the Pittsburgh Penguins. At one point in the second period, after the teams traded goals and enthusiastic celebrations, two buddies were glad they had caught a Greyhound bus in suburban D.C. at 1 a.m. ET.
"We have a Winter Classic!" shouted Patrick Kelly, 25, of Chevy Chase, Md.
Kelly, clad in a Caps jacket, scarf and knit hat, leaned against a railing on a ramp high in the southwest corner of Heinz Field. He and his buddy, Pens fan Cameron Adams, 28, also of Chevy Chase, arrived in Pittsburgh at 6:30 a.m. They had to kill the afternoon because the game was pushed back from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. due to weather. And they had to catch the bus back home at 2 a.m. But they didn't care.
"Worth it?" Adams was asked.
The Winter Classic didn't go according to script. Had it, superstars Sidney Crosby(notes) and Alex Ovechkin(notes) would have scored hat tricks in a snow globe. But the lead-up to this year's event was a reality show – HBO's "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic" – and as league commissioner Gary Bettman said, "This is reality hockey when you take it outdoors. It becomes a little unpredictable."
The superstars didn't shine. Crosby was quiet and took a blindside hit that left him doubled over at the end of the second period. Ovechkin tripped over the blue line while winding up for a shot, got stoned on a breakaway and had a goal disallowed. The two faces of the game – the guys in the magazine spreads and TV commercials – both went without a point and registered a minus-1 rating.
Or maybe the hero was NHL ice guru Dan Craig.
Warm, wet weather threatened to turn the Winter Classic into a natural disaster. When the Capitals practiced Friday afternoon, the temperature pushed 60 degrees. They put pylons over holes in the ice. Sunlight turned one part of the rink into a massive puddle. "That ice was melting faster than Frosty the Snowman," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.
The delayed faceoff Saturday created a scene that was part strange, part inspiring. As the sun started to set at 5 p.m., the temperature was 53 degrees. A layer of fog sat over the Allegheny River as fans tailgated in the parking lots and partied outside of restaurants and bars near the stadium. Many wore Pens or Caps sweaters, but some pulled up their sleeves and others wore T-shirts. Some wore knit hats; a few wore shorts.
The ice was awful for warmups. There was so much standing water, the players left wakes when they skated. It looked like the old glowing Fox puck when they took shots, with the stadium lights illuminating the trails left by their stick blades. "I think we were all looking at each other during the warmups, like, 'This has got to get better than this,' " Knuble said.
It did get better – at least for a while. The game was now in prime time on American television, under the bright lights at night. The teams emerged together – the players walking in pairs, opponent and opponent, side by side – and soaked up more than the moisture.
"Coming down the tunnel, it's a pretty amazing feeling," Crosby said. "Playing hockey in front of that many people, it's something that probably none of us ever dreamed of doing."
"It was one of the best feelings in my life," Ovechkin said. "When you see it's sold out, it's like, I can't imagine when football players play every game like this. It's unbelievable."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he turned to assistant Tony Granato and said, "Cross that one off my bucket list, because that was a real unique experience and one I won't forget."
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said it "felt big-time … like an NFL, Monday night, playoff game or something." He laughed later when dueling sections of Caps and Pens fans somehow found common ground, chanting that the Philadelphia Flyers stunk. "It was like, 'OK, we can agree on that,' " Leonsis said, smiling. "It was like their détente."
The official temperature was 51.7 degrees at faceoff – about four degrees warmer than it was in Phoenix. The ice was poor in the first period, when the Capitals' John Erskine(notes) and the Penguins' Michael Rupp(notes) squared off and threw roundhouse right after roundhouse right. The ice improved in the second as Malkin, Knuble and Fehr scored, but there was the light drizzle. Then came the third period and the light rain.
When crew members shoveled the ice during a TV timeout with 13:50 to go, they made waves. Knuble said he half-expected the NHL to forget the commercials to get the game over with, but half-joked "they would have to pay their advertisers back."
When the referees waved their arms with about 10 minutes to go, Leonsis said he thought they were calling the game. He didn't realize they were just signaling the teams to switch ends. The rain finally subsided by the time Fehr finished off the Pens with 5:15 to go. "It was fun," Knuble said. "It was like going to Scotland playing golf. You want the rain coming in. You want some of the elements. So we had the elements. It would have been better with some snow, but we got the elements tonight."
Most important, they got through them.
"I'm sure," Knuble said, "the league's extremely happy that this thing's done."