WASHINGTON — The NHL almost could not have scripted the 2015 Winter Classic any better.
From the time the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks took the ice at Nationals Park, through a fly-over by F-16 fighter jets, an Alex Ovechkin goal and the drama of a late winner by Troy Brouwer, Thursday’s game was a showcase of top-of-the-line hockey.
"It’s a celebration of our game," Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen said.
It was a celebration of the good and the bad. The only thing that hurt the majesty of the afternoon was a series of late penalty calls that contributed to the Capitals’ 3-2 victory and left a sour taste in the mouths of Blackhawks players.
A questionable hooking penalty on Jonathan Toews in the game’s final minute paved the way for Brouwer’s goal with 12.9 seconds left.
"I don’t know how much that play deserved a call there, how much it had to do with maybe us getting a few more opportunities on the power play previously in the game," Toews said. "It’s not a good feeling especially with the excitement, the hype and the energy that surrounded this whole thing leading up to this game."
For more than 55 minutes, this was a game so well played it would’ve been a thriller no matter the setting. Sun played a role on at least one goal, but the ice was so good the teams were able to race up and down like a track meet.
Washington waited four years since the Capitals visited the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2011 Winter Classic to host this event. Despite concerns about sun glare, it began on time because captains Ovechkin and Toews and Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford gave the thumbs up during pre-game warm-ups.
"For us, the primary issue, if there was to be an issue, was player safety," commissioner Gary Bettman said. "Once we were comfortable that that wasn’t going to be an issue, everyone decided, I decided, it was time to go and play on time."
Unlike past Winter Classics, there wasn’t a sloppy feeling-out period. Eric Fehr scored on a breakaway early, his third outdoor goal in his second Winter Classic to become the NHL’s leader in that category.
The teams switched ends at the 10-minute mark of the first period to make it fair given the sun glare. Not long after that, Ovechkin scored on a rebound and Patrick Sharp answered for the Blackhawks on a power-play goal that Braden Holtby couldn’t see because of the sun.
Even if that goal, and perhaps Brandon Saad’s in the second period that came after an odd bounce off the end boards, would only have happened outdoors, that’s part of the deal in games like this.
When the elements weren’t a factor, the facts of hockey came into play. The Blackhawks got 1:31 of a five-on-three power play in the second period, but Duncan Keith’s stick broke at the blue-line and they got zero shots on net in their best chance to take control.
"The mentality today was just shoot the puck and things happen, but on a five-on-three, it’s not the same mentality, which probably didn’t help us," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "When you don’t score on five-on-threes, you generally don’t win and that ended up being the result."
A late penalty on Niskanen, a borderline boarding call, gave Chicago another opportunity. There were two seconds left on that power play when Toews got his stick across the body of Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom.
"I don’t really think at any point in the game the refs are looking to give an easy one to a team," Washington defenceman Karl Alzner said. "It’s bad timing for them, good timing for us."
When Saad slashed Ovechkin on the ensuing penalty kill, the puck was free for Brouwer to turn around and fire it past Corey Crawford. It wasn’t picturesque, but the former Blackhawks winger will take it.
"I’m not sure where it even went in, but I heard the noise of the crowd, heard the noise of the guys on the ice," Brouwer said. "It was one of those where you know the time, you know the score, and you’re just trying to get a puck on net, and thankfully it went in."
For the Blackhawks, it was hard to take.
"Regardless of what happens, you never want to lose in the last minute of a game or you never want to be scored on in the last minute of a period," forward Ben Smith said. "It’s tough to swallow, for sure."
Brouwer was playing with a heavy heart 11 days after Clint Reif, an assistant equipment manager for the Blackhawks and a friend, was found dead at his home. Brouwer’s father, who had a stroke two years ago, was also among the 42,832 in attendance and sent him a congratulatory text message after the goal.
The Vancouver product won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010 and scored a late winner during the Capitals’ memorable playoff series against the Boston Bruins in 2012. This was still special.
"I’ve had some good moments in my hockey career, but this one, with all the intangibles, that played a part in it," Brouwer said. "My parents being able to come into town, playing against my former team, this being the first goal that I scored against my former team and the dramatic fashion at the end of the game of how everything played out, it’s going to be a memorable day, a memorable event."
There were plenty of memorable images, including before the game when players entered around a replica of the U.S. Capitol Building and a giant American flag was unfurled on the ice. After the puck was dropped at 1:30 with a perfect temperature of just over six degrees, there was Ovechkin jumping into the glass to celebrate his 18th goal of the season.
But by the end, Capitals fans added another by tossing their seat cushions in the air to celebrate Brouwer’s goal. It’s a local tradition that dates back to a Washington Redskins NFL playoff game in 1991 down the street at old RFK Stadium.
The Capitals became just the second home team to win a Winter Classic, joining the Bruins, who needed overtime to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010 event at Fenway Park.
"You definitely want to win a home game like this," said Fehr, a native of Winkler, Man., who has become something of a Winter Classic hero after scoring twice in the 2011 game. "You don’t want to let your fans down."
Even if Blackhawks fans walked to the exits with their shoulders slumped a bit from a stinging loss, Smith said it was an honour just to be a part of the Winter Classic. Bettman was, as usual, satisfied with how the event turned out, and he had reason to given the level of play.
"I know they get compared one outdoor game to another: they’re all unique, they’re all different, they’re all special in their own way," Bettman said. "I don’t know what people’s expectations were for our event here today, but the Winter Classic here in Washington couldn’t have been better from a fan experience and an entertainment standpoint."
Barry Trotz was coaching his first outdoor game and sure seemed to enjoy the whole experience. That extended to his post-game news conference.
"I’ve got the first question," Trotz said. "Did anybody have any fun? Yeah, I’m having a lot of fun right now."
Notes: Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg left the game in the third period with an upper-body injury and did not return. Quenneville said Versteeg "could be out for a bit" but said the team would know more Friday. … Capitals defenceman Brooks Orpik not only played but led the team in ice time (24:44) just three days after suffering what looked to be a scary knee injury. Orpik had been considered a game-time decision. … Billy Idol performed before the game, Gavin DeGraw during the first intermission and then Lee Greenwood during the second.