|(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)|
December started as a tough month for the Caps. They had suffered through a eight game losing streak. It was two weeks with out a win and earning only two standings points during that stretch and they would come into NHL's Winter Classic as a team just turning things around. They were unbeaten in regulation in 5 games with a shoot-out loss against the Penguins looming above them coming into Heinz Field on New Year's Day.
When the weather turned on the league's premiere outdoor event the Capitals did not use poor ice as an excuse nor did they try to force the game to suit their high skill style. Instead they went back to basics.
"We thought it was going to be just a grind it out game," Bruce Boudreau said about his thoughts before the game concerning the situation. "After we were on the ice yesterday, it didn't look like the ice conditions would be great. We knew the fancy tic-tac-toe stuff wasn't going to work. So we knew we had to dump it in and we had to win the game below the circles. I thought we did a real good job of that."
The Caps first goal to tie the game at one was anything but fancy or tic-tac-toe. On the power play, the Caps crashed the net creating confusion in front of the Pittsburgh net. Mike Knuble would jab the puck into the net. Their first goal would be the definition of a garbage goal.
With ice conditions as tough as they were, the Caps could not play their high risk/high reward skill game in the neutral zone. So, they kept it simple. They dumped the puck in deep and let their forechecking game take over. It would lead to several Penguin turn overs including Marc-Andre Fleury's flub behind the net that allowed Marcus Johansson find Eric Fehr in front of a wide open net.
"When you play with a lead on ice like that, it's the simple things that are going to win you games," David Steckel said of their strategy. "So we got it out and got it in and tried to play well defensively. It was a great effort tonight."
As the Penguins pressed, the Caps relied on simple outs to keep the puck moving out of their zone. When the situation presented itself in the third period, it would be a simple give and go that would open up the Pens' defense and Fehr would score his second goal of the night to add some insurance.
"We had a good lead going into the third," Fehr said of his second goal. "We just wanted to play defense and fortunately I was able to get that second one. We weren't trying to go for offense right then."
For a team that has blushed away from sandpaper-like play when the going got tough, the Caps used it effectively on the road in front of 68,111 fans. It wasn't perfect, but when the defense faltered Semyon Varlamov came up with the save they needed.
"It was pretty tough to keep concentrated with the water [on the ice]," Varlamov said of his trials with the ice.
Getting the lead was important for the Capitals. It was hard to even make simple out passes out of the zone. But protecting the lead through a period and half of the game, it took everyone to keep their play simple.
"Our skill guys like Ovi and Semin, they were dumping the puck in and getting deep rather than try to tangle and it worked out," Caps' tough guy John Erskine said. "We got it deep and went after them and kept the lead."
Since making passes was a near impossibility, the Penguins tried to play catch up on terrible ice. They were flubbing the puck in the neutral zone as the Caps stood tall on their blue line to keep the them from even entering the zone. The Penguins tried to rely on their skill to get back into the game, but the conditions would not let them.
"Certainly tonight, given the situation, they were content to get pucks out and get them deep," Penguins' head coach Dan Bylsma said after the game. "It made it tough on us to try and mount something to get some offense in the third period. It made it difficult on us."
It is a hard lesson to learn, but a long losing streak sometimes prepares a team for adversity that is not apart the norm, like, for instance, the Winter Classic. The Caps seemed to have learned their lesson and players have risen to the occasion. Now it is time to work that experience into the post season.