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Caps lead Pens 2-1 after 40 minutes of Winter Classic

by Shawn P. Roarke
PITTSBURGH -- The 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Heinz Field arrived Saturday night, greeted by an unseasonably warm evening and unquestionably receptive crowd that roared throughout the first 40 minutes of the game, which Washington led 2-1 after 40 minutes.

After a scoreless first period, Evgeni Malkin got the party rolling at the 2:13 into the second period when he scored the game-opening goal with a sweet breakaway keyed by an off-the-board chip by defenseman Kris Letang. Malkin came down the right boards and accelerated past the angled pursuit before burying a wrister through the five-hole of Semyon Varlamov.

Malkin, who now has 14 goals this season, celebrated his goal by leaping joyfully into the Penguins bench -- a Heinz Hop, perhaps, borrowing liberally from the "Lambeau Leap"  tradition started by the Green Bay Packers at their home in Lambeau Field.

But the home team's lead lasted just 4:41, as gritty forward Mike Knuble scored the workmanlike goal that has become his trademark.

With Max Talbot in the penalty box for holding Alex Ovechkin at the blue line, defenseman Mike Green started the scoring play with a strong rush into the lower slot before whiffing on a shot. The puck careened crazily in the crease, where nobody could claim possession until Knuble jabbed his stick into the melee and shoveled the puck between Marc-Andre Fleury's legs.

At 14:45, Eric Fehr put Washington into the lead when he was the beneficiary of a miscue by Fleury, who flubbed playing a dump-in behind the net, losing the puck in his skates before Marcus Johansson beat defenseman Deryk Engelland to the loose puck and passed it out to a grateful Fehr, who was unmarked in the slot.

Craig Adams thought he had tied the game in the second period's final minute, but the goal was nullified when Mike Rupp crashed into Capital goalie Varlamov as he tried to make the save.

Fleury, who has 26 saves after two periods, broke his stick in frustration after the puck found the net. Varlamov, meanwhile, has stopped 23 of 24 shots so far.

Despite the delayed start, the game was worth the wait as it played out as majestically as each of its three predecessors. The game was moved from its original 1 p.m. start to 8 p.m. ET because of heavy rain that blanketed the region Saturday morning. As a result, the Winter Classic became a night-time event for the first time, adding a new dynamic to the League's signature regular-season event.

From the moment the Penguins and Capitals walked out side by side, flanked by drummers and strobe-like fire pots, the game played out beautifully. Even a rainfall that grew somewhat steadier in the second period could not dampen the action.

American anthemist Jackie Evancho stole the show early, belting out a hauntingly beautiful version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Evancho, a finalist in "America's Got Talent," is a Pittsburgh native.

But once the game began, the hockey and the atmosphere earned top billing.

Neither side allowed the unseasonably warm temperatures -- 51.7 degrees at faceoff -- or the ice surface take away from one of the game's fiercest rivalries.

Ovechkin, the face of the Capitals, announced Washington's intentions with a huge hit in the corner on his very first shift. Jordan Staal, playing in his first game of the season after rehabbing foot and hand injuries, answered in the fifth minute with an equally ferocious planting of a Capital defenseman into the end boards.

The sold-out crowd roared with delight at each hit, waving their Terrible Towels with abandon as the teams exchanged hits and scoring chances.

A ferocious fight between Pittsburgh's Mike Rupp and the Caps' John Erskine had the towels in a maelstrom, seemingly keeping tempo as the two big men threw wild punches at each other in a bout that elicited several ovations.

There were also several good scoring chances in the period.

Ovechkin was just wide with a redirect attempt at the 3:01 mark. Staal had a great shorthanded chance on his first penalty kill of the season. Washington's Jay Beagle had an in-tight shot that Fleury somehow fought off. Washington defenseman John Carlson hit a post with a canon of a shot, just 30 seconds removed from a post-ringer by Pittsburgh forward Mark Letestu.

After 20 minutes, Fleury had stopped all 12 shots by the Capitals, while Varlamov was a perfect 16-for-16 at the other end of the ice.
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