Winter Classic a Classic with the Return of 11 on 1-1-11

Numerologists could probably have a field day with the many ways the numeral 1 was present on the day of the Bridgestone Winter Classic at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. It was the first day of the first month of the 11th year in the 21st century; the game time was moved from 1PM to “prime” time, and fittingly, it marked the return of the Penguins’ number 11, Jordan Staal.

While the 3-1 outcome of the game in favor of the Caps was disappointing to Penguins fans, the real excitement was apparent when Staal took the ice for his first shift as a majority of the 60+thousand in attendance roared their welcome. Staal did not disappoint. The strength was there, and so was the speed as he devoured the ice with his characteristic long strides. Staal skated like a man possessed. He notched 4 total shots, registered 3 decisive hits to the delight of the home crowd, and won 11 of 18 face-offs for a respectable 61% to edge his captain, Sidney Crosby by 3%. If there was a downside to his game, it was the slightly perceptible rustiness of his finer stick handling, particularly in close under pressure. No worries – he’ll have that knocked off in no time at all given his work ethic.

Staalsy wasn’t the only bright side of the game. His hitting was infectious as the stats below show and as evidenced by the massive double-decker hit on John Erskine by big Mike Rupp and linemate Craig Adams. This hit elicited an immediate heavyweight bout between Rupp and Erskine to the delight of fans. And speaking of hitting, there was the nasty hit on Sidney Crosby by David Steckel with no penalty called, and it looks nastier and nastier with each replay. Had this been the Steelers at Heinz Field and James Harrison putting that hit on an opponent, it’s likely a latent fine would have been delivered by Wednesday…but this is the NHL.

Overall, the Penguins-Capitals match-up was all it was billed to be. The rink was what it was. Ovechkin was up to his usual antics, but he was held to no goals, no assists and a -1 for his trouble. There was no lack of drama with a penalty (not a penalty shot) called against the Caps on a Penguins break for the net. This was later reciprocated by a controversial “no goal” call as Mike Rupp was pushed through the crease, doing his best to avoid colliding with Caps net minder Semyon Varlamov.

Not to be forgotten was the freakish way Ovechkin got a breakaway on Marc-Andre Fleury who made an unbelievable stop on the pointblank shot. In the next split second, Evgeni Malkin broke in the opposite direction to seal the deal in a way Ovi couldn’t seconds before with the Penguins’ only goal, and Fleury got the secondary assist. The crowd went wild.

While on the subject of goaltenders, the very young Varlamov is one of two young goalies on the Caps team that has been splitting game time this season, and Caps goalie coach Arturs Erbe is hoping that one of them will emerge as the clear starter. Varlamov may be edging that way. He was terribly stingy with the Penguins, stopping 32 of 33 shots. At the opposite end, Marc-Andre Fleury was forced to stand on his head multiple times, but his momentary lapse in judgment in the face of such amazing physical acrobatics only served to highlight and double underscore the absolute necessity of a goalie to stay mentally sharp for 100% of a 60-minute game.

Statistically speaking, this year’s Winter Classic between these two opponents was literally a tug of war and another freaky pattern of numbers:

  • Shots – Penguins 33, Capitals 32 (if only Ovi could have managed one more shot…)
  • Face-offs Won – Penguins 33, Capitals 33
  • Face-offs Lost – Penguins 33, Capitals 33
  • Hits – Penguins 44, Capitals 26

In terms of atmosphere, even viewers in the comfort of their homes could feel the electricity and excitement of the entire event. It was great to watch the Alumni game, which helped to set the tone along with numerous other family-friendly events. Kudos are in order for the expert way the event was planned, billed and executed, especially when the weather didn’t seem to want to cooperate. The contingency plan really served to give the game more exposure with the night-time start.

The most disappointing element of this extravaganza had nothing to do with the Penguins or the Capitals, but with NBC’s broadcasting plan. The camera angles were not only frustrating with strange, slow “swoops” of the overhead cable cameras, but downright maddening when more than once the camera wasn’t even on the right spot on the ice–where the puck was! Seriously, NBC made Versus look expert in the realm of hockey videography. Even more painful was having Pierre Maguire and Darren Pang in matching gray jackets and twin polished “domes” flanking Mike Milberry like symmetrical bookends during an intermission analysis.

It is comforting to know that there is still one more episode of HBO’s Penguins – Capitals 24/7 where viewers can look forward to the behind-the-scenes treatment of the Winter Classic as a nightcap to the NBC spectacle.

And how’s this for a final, weird numerical note? If Marc-Andre Fleury had not horribly misplayed the puck behind his net, and if the Penguin defense had not broken down to allow a wicked opportunity for Eric Fehr, the game could have been knotted at 1-1, with a chance for OT and at least 1 point for the Pens. Wild stuff.

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