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Notebook: Winter Classic Experience Touches All Parties

by Tony Jovenitti / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins fell to the Washington Capitals 3-1 Saturday night, but a team getting two points wasn’t the main point of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Heinz Field.

It was a celebration of hockey, and the atmosphere of a primetime hockey game being played outside under the lights in an NFL stadium made for an unbelievable night.

“It was an amazing feeling,” Sidney Crosby said. “Playing hockey in front of that many people, it’s something that probably none of us ever dreamed of doing.”

“There were a lot of chills,” said Jordan Staal, who returned to the Penguins lineup for the first time this season after suffering a broken hand in November.

Saturday marked the second time the Penguins played in an NFL stadium, after beating the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1, at the Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, in the inaugural Winter Classic in a shootout in 2008. But the thrill has not worn off for Crosby. 

“It’s pretty easy to see why you see (NFL players) so pumped up every week. Coming down the tunnel is a pretty amazing feeling,” Crosby said. “And I said the same thing when we played in Buffalo.”

As the crowd was going crazy during the epic introductions, head coach Dan Bylsma said it was a “real unique experience and one I won’t forget.”

He turned to assistant coach Tony Granato and said, “Cross that one off my bucket list.”

The Capitals were also blown away by the aura of the event, even though their fans were outnumbered by the hometown crowd.

“It felt unbelievable,” said Eric Fehr, who scored two goals in the game. “The first time we came out for the first period there, the fans were loud and it was just everything you dreamed of.”

Certainly, the Penguins would have liked to win the game, but in the Winter Classic, everybody wins.

“It would have been nice to be on the other side of things, but it’s still a privilege to be part of that,” Crosby said.

Since the event started in 2008, the spectacle has become more elaborate in each host city.

“We’ve seen it year after year,” Crosby said. “It’s getting bigger and bigger.”

Just as the Penguins and Capitals were starting to get used to cameras following them around, the HBO crews will pack up and head home.

The Winter Classic is the grand finale for the groundbreaking series “24/7 Penguins-Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic.” The finale airs on Wednesday at 10 p.m. with unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at Saturday’s Classic.

Over the past month, the unblinking eye of the cameras essentially became a part of each team, and both Pittsburgh and Washington will have to adjust to things getting back to normal.

“We are going to miss them,” Bylsma said. “I thought the show and it leading to the buildup to this game was a unique look, a great experience.”

“We kind of like them now,” Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau said, after he joked that his team didn’t really like the camera crew at the beginning of the month since his team was in the midst of an eight-game losing streak.

The Penguins on the other hand, had quite a bit of success while starring in the show, going 7-4-1 since crews arrived in Pittsburgh on Dec. 5.

“We’ve joked with the HBO guys that we’ll have to invite them back,” Bylsma said.

The creases were full of many things on Saturday night – pucks, water, snow and bodies. But one thing that frequently wasn’t present in the blue paint was the goaltenders’ ability to cleanly play the puck.

Both the Penguins and the Capitals had a goal waved off by the referees – both for incidental goaltender interference.

Shortly after the Capitals took the 2-1 lead, Craig Adams buried the biscuit on a three-on-two chance. But Mike Rupp skated through the crease after colliding with Mike Green and bumped Semyon Varlamov. The referee immediately waved off the goal.

“Green does give him a hit,” Bylsma said. “His skate does catch the pad and it does affect the goaltender. I certainly would have liked the puck to have counted. But I wasn’t going to argue too much at the call.

“We would have tied it up, so it was a bit of a disappointment.”

Late in the third period, with the Penguins trailing 3-1, Alex Ovechkin tripped up Marc-Andre Fleury behind the goal. Fleury scrambled back and dove into the crease as Ovechkin slapped the puck into the net. Once again, the goal was emphatically waved off.

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