Anytime an event has the hype, buildup and anticipation of the Winter Classic, it's easy to lose focus of what's really at stake when the puck drops. When Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was asked after the game what the win meant for his team going forward, he laughed, raised his hands up in the air and said, "that's just two points."
It's the one time -- probably including playoffs -- per year that the NHL is on the center stage of the sports world -- or as close to it as it can get -- so the game will obviously take on a larger importance and it's easy to forget that, at the end, it is just two points.
Some final thoughts on the 2011 Winter Classic...
-- The 8 p.m. ET start time ended up working out. It not only had the added benefit of going up against just one college football bowl game (the laugher between Oklahoma and Connecticut), there also didn't seem to be any complaints about the later start, and there was plenty of discussion as to whether or not a successful showing would lead to future games being played under the lights. Said Commissioner Gary Bettman: "The scene was spectacular. Somebody in one of the clubs was telling me that as they approached the stadium and they saw the lights on, it was just a spectacular sight. They got chills down their spine. It was one of the more amazing things they've been associated with in all their time in hockey."
The night start seemed to add even more to the atmosphere with the crowd, and gave Pittsburgh an opportunity to shine at its best: when its skyline is lit up at night. The only problem with scheduling future games for prime time is the fact it gives the NHL almost no window for delay in case of weather, something that's been an issue at two of the first four Winter Classics (though, this was the first time a start was actually pushed back). If weather is an issue at 1 p.m., the game can easily be shifted to later in the evening as we saw this season. If you schedule for 8 p.m., you have no window if it rains (or snows, or whatever mother nature throws out there). You're either playing that night, or you're not, which can be an inconvenience to everybody from fans, to stadium employees to the teams themselves.
Bettman continued: "I'm very comfortable with the decision we made (Friday) afternoon, because I really didn't want to inconvenience the fans, and I, frankly, didn't want to have the players sitting around trying to anticipate what was going to happen. They had a pretty normal, routine day, the players did this year, in terms of going first skate and getting ready for an evening game. It may be, just like with the game in Buffalo, the elements had an influence, and when you look back on this event it will have its own legend, it's own story line because of what we saw."
-- The hook for this game, as it always is with the Penguins and Capitals, was Crosby vs. Ovechkin. The biggest star of the game turned out to be Capitals forward Eric Fehr with his two-goal performance, and it didn't seem to bother anybody or hurt anything. It's easy -- too easy, probably -- to latch onto the media created and media driven Crosby vs. Ovechkin agenda, but the rivalry between these two teams goes back so much further and has involved so many other players over the years that those guys are just one part of it. Not the part.
The two superstars didn't need to have huge games for there to be passion and intensity both on and off the ice. Fans that have followed these clubs for any length of time can just as easily relate to this matchup when the teams were made up of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and Michal Pivonka.
-- If you didn't know any better, you would have sworn the Stanley Cup playoffs had been decided based on the number of people fighting for position and swarming around players during postgame press conferences and trips to the locker room. Getting to, or near, anybody was a struggle. And that wouldn't have been as frustrating had everybody not asked the same questions over and over again.
"How did it feel to play in the rain?"
"What did it mean for you to play in this game?"
"Tell me about the rain?"
"Was it fun to play in this game?"
You ask the same questions, you get the same answers. Answers that included, "both teams had to deal with it" and "it was a great experience."
-- The fans and the atmosphere are what make this game such a must-see event. Walking through town to the stadium on Saturday was nothing short of incredible. There was an undeniable buzz in the air, and seeing the streets littered with fans wearing Penguins and Capitals jerseys (as well as jerseys from many other NHL teams, including Buffalo, Philadelphia, Chicago, Edmonton, Detroit and many others) was amazing. The closer to the stadium, the better it became. I've been going to Steelers games at Heinz Field for 10 years now and I've never seen a tailgating scene like the one I encountered on Saturday afternoon.
-- So where does the game go next season? I'm on board with the idea Chris Botta suggested of Rangers vs. Red Wings at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich. Yes, the Red Wings, like the Penguins, have already had their shot in the Winter Classic, but they've never hosted it, which is the real prize. It would allow for the biggest crowd (over 100,000), weather shouldn't be much of an issue, and the matchup includes two original six teams, including one from the league's biggest market (New York) and one of the most successful and best teams in the NHL over the past two decades (Detroit).
And while we're on the topic of future games: Football stadiums should always win out over baseball stadiums. Always. Wrigley Field and Fenway Park were nice and all, but there's just too many bad seats with poor views (or no view) of the ice. Outside of the first couple of rows on the lower level, Heinz Field had some great viewing spots.
No, it wasn't perfect, and it wasn't what Penguins and Capitals fans are used to at the Consol Energy Center and Verizon Center, but it wasn't bad, either, even if you were in the upper levels.