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The Verdict: Blackhawks provided measuring stick for victorious Caps in Winter Classic

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Jonathan Toews set an NHL record with his fifth point in an outdoor game after assisting on Brandon Saad's tying goal in the second period. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON—Everybody wants to play the Blackhawks. Then everybody has to play the Blackhawks.

Long before his Washington Capitals secured a dramatic 3-2 decision in Thursday’s Winter Classic, Head Coach Barry Trotz nominated the Blackhawks as “probably the gold standard” of National Hockey League franchises, based on overall excellence. They are the industry’s measuring stick, and when you take their measure, you respond as the winners did in the home locker room.

As if they had claimed a Game 7 in a playoff series instead of the first game of a new year, the Capitals gleefully celebrated what they perceived as a landmark occasion on an international platform. They’ve been playing well lately, but downing marquee material such as the Blackhawks before 42,832 at Nationals Park seemed like another dimension.

Troy Brouwer, a good man who contributed significantly to a 2010 Stanley Cup victory for Chicago, turned on his former employers and whipped the puck past goalie Corey Crawford at 19:47 of the third period. It occurred on a power play, and while stewing over a pointless business trip, the Blackhawks were underwhelmed about the veracity of a penalty assessed to Jonathan Toews a minute earlier.

Under the circumstances, the Blackhawks captain allowed, maybe his contact with Karl Alzner could have been interpreted as something less than a hooking infraction. Then again, still on the subject of whistles, Head Coach Joel Quennevlle always warns that a team wasting a 5-on-3 advantage invariably pays. The Blackhawks had one of those delectable opportunities during an otherwise energetic second period, but failed to complete a reversal of momentum. Alas, the visitors’ slow start had a bookend conclusion. When Brouwer clicked, injured Kris Versteeg was absent, and Brandon Saad was about to join Toews in the box for a delayed slashing call.

Hundreds – no, thousands – of Blackhawk jerseys were in evidence on this effulgent afternoon. No surprise there. Wherever this team plays, their people follow. Blackhawks fans are loyal, portable and weatherproof. As John McDonough, the team President and CEO, likes to say, “We travel well.” But this entire crowd was into it. When play was on, concourses were desolate.

Through two periods, it was 2-2 and the masses witnessed a bit of variety, including a change of sides at a hard 10-minute count of the first period. For the opening puck drop, the rink was liberally bathed in sunlight. Thus, it was decided that teams would switch ends to share the glare. By the time the Blackhawks and Capitals traded places, about half the playing area was in the shade – roughly from goal to goal, and from home plate out beyond the pitcher’s mound.

By this time, the Capitals also had a 1-0 lead. Despite a serviceable ice surface, the puck bounced wildly past Brent Seabrook at the Washington blue line. Eric Fehr pounced, won the race and beat Crawford with a deft move. Evidently, Fehr is a fresh-air fiend. He scored twice for the Capitals in their 2011 Winter Classic victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After Crawford relocated to a new net, Alex Ovechkin put a rebound past him to make it 2-0 at 11:58. However, the Capitals were trending toward the penalty box, and Patrick Sharp halved their advantage to 2-1 on a power play at 13:36, assisted by Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane.

As the second period commenced, stadium lights were gaining traction, the rink was almost completely shaded, and Coach Q remained hatless behind the visitors bench. So were his assistants, Mike Kitchen and Kevin Dineen, all three of them decked out in spiffy leather jackets with snow-white sleeves.

Ah, but wait. A sliver of sunshine arrived in front of Braden Holtby, the Capitals goalkeeper, all the better for the Blackhawks to line him up. On a turnover, Saad converted with assists from Marian Hossa and Toews, who registered his record-setting fifth outdoor point. It was 2-2 at 3:15 of the middle period, about 3 minutes after Ovechkin twice bore in on Crawford. Washington's captain clanked one effort off a post, and another puck of his kissed the crossbar. He had an active afternoon, assisting on the winner.

Brouwer said he never saw his goal that spread cheer throughout this region and the Western Conference. He made many friends as a Blackhawk, including Clint Reif, the recently deceased assistant equipment manager. Brouwer was instrumental in having the Capitals affix “CR” to their helmets. Something about hockey players. They bring respect wherever they go, indoors or outdoors.

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