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Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (L) and Mike Green (R) of the Washington Capitals fight for the puck during the first period of the NHL's Winter Classic hockey game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania January 1, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Cohn


It wasn't a classic - and it certainly wasn't winter - but at least they got it in.

The 2011 Winter Classic hit the NHL record books Saturday as regular season Game No. 566: a 3-1 victory by the Washington Capitals over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Not much of a game, perhaps, but a significant event.

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As a game, it was certainly not one for the ages - and barely one for the new decade. Nor was it even remotely the hoped-for mano a mano challenge match between Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin.

Neither superstar figured in the scoring, leaving the two young faces of the NHL curiously tied at 571 career points since they burst upon the scene in the 2005-06 season.

If either Ovechkin or Crosby was noteworthy for anything in this game played under increasing rain at Heinz Field, it was for stumbling over the ice that most players found difficult to master. They weren't the only ones to fall, however, referee Paul Devorski taking a slippery-sidewalk quality spill early in the third period.

"We knew the fancy, tic-tac-toe stuff wasn't going to work," said Washington coach Bruce Boudreau.

At puck drop, they announced the "official temperature" as 10.9 C - bad golf weather, worse hockey weather. The rink had the eerie look of a northern lake the afternoon before the ice goes out in spring. All that was lacking were the ghosts of snowmobile trails.

Players seemed so reluctant to carry the puck that there were cracks that the NHL would have to switch to a tennis ball for the remaining two periods - but it was not to be.

"The conditions were all right," Crosby said rather diplomatically when it was over. "It's the same for both teams."

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The game had been delayed from its 1 p.m. scheduled start on warnings of "heavy rains," though they never came. There was no rain at the beginning, a drizzle through the second and enough rain in the third to cause many of the 68,111 in attendance to duck under rain gear.

"Lots of rain," Ovechkin said. But he denied it had any effect on the game. "We handled it," he said, "and it was a pretty good game.

"It was very fun."

"I was hoping they'd call it on account of rain in the third," Boudreau joked. "But it ended up okay for us."

First goal went to the host Penguins when Evgeni Malkin beat Washington goaltender Semyon Varlamov - who was otherwise brilliant - on the glove side. But the Capitals then scored three times, one by Mike Knuble and two by little-known scorer Eric Fehr. It was far from highlight hockey.

It was, however, a success as an event, which is what the NHL wished for most. The Winter Classic - in its fourth incarnation in the United States, where they don't count the 2003 Heritage Classic played in Edmonton - is a novel idea with obvious appeal: the winter game played in natural conditions. Rain does fall in January - though only rarely in hockey country.

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This year's version had everything going for it but luck with the weather. They had the two most visible faces in the game, a seething dislike between the two nearby franchises, a stunning setting at the Heinz Field football stadium and it was being held in the most underrated city in America.

All through the week, the event had been at the centre of a merchandising orgy, with "vintage" jerseys and team tuques flooding - no pun intended - the streets and the media on a feeding frenzy, from a reality series on HBO to a special Winter Classic section in USA Today. NBC gave it full, and courtesy of the rain, prime-time coverage.

"The event was terrific," proclaimed league commissioner Gary Bettman.

"It was a magnificent couple of days," added losing coach Dan Bylsma, who wished only that the score had been different.

"It's two points," Boudreau had said before his team's victory.

"But I think in the whole it's a big thing for hockey."

Better next year, though, if it snows.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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