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Rivalry survives elements as Caps top Pens

by Dan Rosen /
PITTSBURGH -- The rain couldn't put out the fire at Heinz Field on Saturday night.

A crowd of 68,111 happily soaked itself in the most-anticipated game of the 2010-11 season, and they were treated to a beauty between bitter rivals who added another chapter to an outdoor hockey book that is becoming a true classic.

Eric Fehr scored a pair of goals and Semyon Varlamov was rock solid in stopping 32 of 33 shots as the Capitals stole the thunder from Pittsburgh at the conclusion of its week-long hockey carnival with a 3-1 victory in the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

The Capitals left town thrilled, while the Penguins went home without anything tangible to show for their second appearance in the League's signature regular-season event. But everyone -- players, coaches and fans -- now has a memory that will never fade.

"It was one of the best experiences of my life," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. "I can't imagine football players play every game like this. It's unbelievable. It's the kind of thing you want to do all the time, go out and play like this."

Concerns about the playing surface were prevalent throughout the game. NHL V.P. of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell was sitting rink-side and, at every break, was in communication with the on-ice officials as well as Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig, who was responsible for maintaining the ice surface.

The rain got gradually heavier as the first period bled into the second. The ice was at its wettest in the first 10 minutes of the third period before the teams switched sides due to gusting winds.

"Nobody was complaining about it," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

They weren't because this white-hot rivalry crushes the elements.

Evgeni Malkin gave the Penguins the lead 2:13 into the second period, but Mike Knuble and Fehr scored before the second intermission to send the Capitals into the dressing room up 2-1. Fehr netted the Capitals the insurance goal on a breakaway set up by Jason Chimera with 8:01 to play in the game.

Varlamov made half of his saves in a thrilling -- yet scoreless -- first period.

In the second period, John Erskine and Mike Rupp certainly gave the fans another memory when they dropped the gloves and threw big punch after big punch (few connected) in a fight at the 11:52 mark.

Rupp and Ovechkin each had a goal waved off due to incidental contact with the goalies.

Sidney Crosby was shaken going into the dressing rooms for the second intermission because he was on the wrong end of a David Steckel hit behind the play that definitely caught the attention of everyone watching; but might have been, as Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said, incidental contact.

Crosby toughed it out and returned for the third period.

"There was no less bite," Chimera said. "I think we were supposed to shake hands at the end and they didn't want to shake hands, but I don't think we would have wanted to shake hands either if we lost. There was hitting, good goals, good saves. It was a fun night to be in hockey."

Crosby called it a "privilege."

"It's pretty easy to see why you see those guys (football players) pumped up every week," he said. "Coming down the tunnel, it's a pretty amazing feeling. And, playing hockey in front of that many people, it's something that probably none of us ever dreamed of doing."

Bylsma, who was rocking a black fedora, said at one point he turned to assistant Tony Granato and said he can "cross this one off his bucket list" because the experience was so overwhelming, so phenomenal.

And, he's the one who coached the losing team.

"The most disappointing part of the day and the event is that we come out not winning the game because it was a magnificent couple of days," Bylsma said. "The experience for me and the guys coming out on the field with the fans and the game, I've talked to a handful now after the game and you can't rate it with any other experience they've had."

The teams walked out onto the field side-by-side between cauldrons blowing fire to the sky.

Steven Page of the band Barenaked Ladies bellowed the French-English version of 'O Canada' with the fans in the sections behind him holding up placards placed perfectly to create a Canadian flag. Jackie Evancho, a 10-year-old Penguins fan and platinum recording artist, had the same image only with the American flag behind her as she delivered a stirring rendition of the 'Star-Spangled Banner.'

"It was just everything you kind of dream of," Fehr said. "It was a perfect night."

One rain couldn't conquer.

Guys with visors wiped them off and went out for another shift. The guys waiting to go out simply sat on the edge of the bench because the water was pooling in the area where their bottoms would rest. The puck at one point looked like it was creating a vapor trail through the slick surface, but it stayed flat and moved well.

"It was more than just a game to everybody," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Don't let anybody fool you. It was a game that we wanted to show people that had never played hockey or watched hockey how good it can be, how exciting it can be. The passion on the guys' faces when they scored a goal was totally genuine. I thought it was a real good game for the growth of the game and I hope it does grow because of it.

"This is as close to the Stanley Cup as we've gotten and we're not denying that it was more than just two points. It was a fabulous game."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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