The rain that pushed the start of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic from an afternoon to an evening start did nothing to dampen the excellence of NBC's telecast of the annual outdoor New Year's Day game.
Because of the weather-necessitated time change, NBC had only 12 minutes from the 8 p.m. ET start of its broadcast before the opening face-off. Host Bob Costas made the most of the time, narrating an intro that featured clips and quotes from Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin on the joys of outdoor hockey before noting that, with the Winter Classic, "Professional hockey has returned to its elemental roots," and wrapping it up with "Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin lead the NHL back outside."
The crowd of 68,111 fans who packed Heinz Field was amped up even before the Caps and Penguins trooped out together between rows of uniformed drummers. Costas and analyst Mike Milbury talked about the teams' recent streaks -- good for the Pens; bad, then good for the Capitals -- and in discussing the Sid vs. Ovi rivalry, Milbury referred to the Great Eight as the "Peck's Bad Boy of Hockey."
The crowd got even louder for the ceremonial opening faceoff, which featured Pens' hero/owner Mario Lemieux and Steelers legends Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis. Former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page sang "O Canada," while 10-year-old sensation (and Pittsburgh's own) Jackie Evancho performed a haunting version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Then it was time for hockey, and there's no one better at appealing to both hard-core hockey fans and first-time viewers alike than play-by-play man Mike Emrick. The man they call "Doc" has an unerring feel for the pace of the game; able to weave information into the telecast that appeals to both kinds of viewers while not missing a beat with his primary function. Think Vin Scully doing hockey and you get the idea.
Emrick is also superb at setting up the announcers with which he is working. He and analyst Eddie Olczyk make a superb team, and Emrick did an excellent job of blending in ice-level reporters Pierre McGuire and Darren Pang.
All four combined to give viewers an appreciation of the differences in playing outdoors rather than indoors and on ice that's thicker and wetter than usual.
Pang, a former goaltender, illustrated a first-period shot that Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury had trouble picking up, while McGuire, who pioneered the position of between-the-benches reporter, offered valuable insight all night on the ice conditions, including a quick report coming out of a first-period timeout during which he talked with Crosby, who said "the ice was not an issue at all."
Emrick, showing the preparedness that is his hallmark, quickly worked in the fact that Crosby had skated on Friday, found the ice a little soft and had his skate edges adjusted to compensate. NBC also used aerial shots -- not possible indoors -- to illustrate the conditions and provide a different view than most fans are used to when watching hockey on TV.
McGuire skated off the ice with Crosby after the scoreless first period and got an update on the ice conditions ("actually pretty good, all thing considered") and a rollicking first-period battle between teammate Michael Rupp and Washington defenseman John Erskine.
The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry was the focus of the first intermission, with Costas narrating a piece comparing it to other great sports rivalries and the trio of Milbury, McGuire and Pang discussing who was the NHL's second-best player -- behind Crosby.
A light rain began to fall during the intermission, and the four-man crew kept viewers updated on the changing weather and the rain's impact on the ice.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said "I think it's inspired us" when asked by Pang about the rain during their mid-period interview. Emrick and Pang later discussed the differences between Friday's conditions and those produced by the light snow that fell during the 2008 game in Buffalo.
Emrick's knowledge of when to talk and when to let the pictures tell the story was never more apparent than after the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring on a breakaway 2:13 into the middle period. For 10 seconds after yelling "Score," Emrick let the sight of Malkin celebrating his goal and being congratulated by his teammates pass in silence before allowing Olczyk and McGuire to analyze the play, which began with Fleury robbing Ovechkin for the second time in the opening stages of the period.
NBC's camera work came to the fore on Washington's tying goal at 6:54, giving viewers several angles that showed how Mike Knuble was able to nudge the puck past Fleury after a power-play scramble. The network had an aerial view of the Caps' go-ahead goal at 14:45, illustrating Fleury's misplay behind the net that led to an easy goal for Eric Fehr.
The second intermission offered a puck-shooting contest between Harris and Bettis, as well as players reflecting on the joys of outdoor hockey. Then it was time for hockey again, with McGuire noting that the wind had joined the rain as a mitigating factor for the players and citing a conversation with referee Paul Devorski in which the veteran ref said play would be stopped at the 10-minute mark for the team to change ends.
Though the Penguins dominated play before the change, the Caps added an insurance goal with 8:01 to play when Fehr finished off a perfect give-and-go with Jason Chimera. NBC made excellent use of camera angles from behind the net to show how Chimera's pass caught Fehr just as he found a seam in the defense and how he snapped a shot over Fleury's glove.
NBC was also quick to illustrate why Devorski waved off an apparent goal by Ovechkin with just under four minutes remaining; it quickly cut to a shot of Ovi making contact with Fleury behind the net, with the two almost holding each other up, before the play ended with Ovechkin zipping home a shot that didn't count.
The animosity between the teams was illustrated during scrums during the final seconds and again after the final horn when after the Penguins waved their sticks to salute the crowd, the teams skated off without shaking hands, as has been the custom after each of the first three Classics. Noted Emrick: "I guess they just didn't feel like it."
In the end, there wasn't much more that hockey fans could ask for from NBC, which delivered top-flight pictures, an announcing foursome that was at the top of its game and a telecast that captured just about every nuance of the NHL's signature regular-season event.