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Classic could be Caps' turning point

WASHINGTON -- And so after all the muttering about buzz and a kind of stagnant feel to the 2015 Winter Classic, mutterings over the matchup and angst about the sun, there was only this: a flawless day and compelling hockey game that reinforced that whatever else the NHL does, the Winter Classic remains a gold standard in memorable.

End stop.

Shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday, the public areas outside Nationals Park were jammed with excited fans, most decked out in Capitals red gear.

And when the Chicago Blackhawks emerged from behind a faux United States Capitol Building and skated the length of a rectangular sheet of ice, meant to imitate the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, to the main rink in front of a sold-out crowd of 42,832, followed shortly thereafter by the hometown Washington Capitals, the debate over whether the Winter Classic had somehow lost its luster or appeal seemed silly.

Check the boxes.

The lack of a natural rivalry between the two teams, one of the factors that went into the perception this Winter Classic would pale in comparison to others, seemed not to matter to the Blackhawks and Capitals, who seemed to instantly find a high level of dislike for each other.

John Carlson of the Capitals whacked Andrew Shaw of the Blackhawks in the head during a Chicago power play, giving the Blackhawks a long 5-on-3 in the second period that the Capitals killed off. Tom Wilson clipped netminder Corey Crawford cruising in front of the Chicago net, drawing a penalty. There were a handful of post-whistle scrums.

The ice surface, always a source of debate or at least a talking point at these events, was fast and firm. Although the sun forced the teams to switch ends midway through the first period, the conditions were ideal.

Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, playing in his third Winter Classic and fourth outdoor game overall, said the ice at Nationals Park was easily the best he'd skated on. Although the play wilted a bit in the second period, the first and the third were played at a high tempo, with both teams able to make precision passes and move the puck without difficulty.

Alex Ovechkin, a beast on this day, scored the Caps' second goal and then set up Troy Brouwer's dramatic winner with 12.9 seconds left in regulation. The Caps' captain also somehow managed to hit two goal posts in about two minutes in the second period.

The other stuff -- the experience, the stuff that's harder to quantify -- also left little doubt that this event was, like its predecessors, a roaring success.

"I don't want to make this more than it is," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said after the game in Washington's dressing room. "I mean, I'm hoping that we can continue to be a franchise that can accomplish bigger things than winning the Winter Classic. But it does feel good to have the league believe in us, and I think this was the best Winter Classic.

"If you look at the quality of the game, the speed of the game, the quality of the ice ... I think the weather was absolutely perfect. And to win at the buzzer, basically, it makes for great theater, great drama."

Indeed, it's hard to imagine that a year from now, when it's expected that the NHL will return to Boston for a second Winter Classic -- most likely at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots -- anyone will remember any of this buzz discussion, because the Washington event has made the point moot.

If this experience in the nation's capital has taught us anything, it's that it's foolish to try to compare these events as though lining them in such a fashion can really serve as an evaluation regarding their impact on a community or franchise. The strong militaristic theme of this game -- the presence of the different branches of the service, the flyover by the fighter jets, and even Lee Greenwood singing "God Bless The USA" -- seemed absolutely apropos for this city.

What remains to be seen is whether a game like this has a lasting impact on the Capitals. Go back and listen to the comments made by Chicago president John McDonagh before the Blackhawks hosted the second Winter Classic at Wrigley Field back in 2009. He has described that game as one of the most important in franchise history, and at that time, before the Blackhawks ended a long Stanley Cup drought in 2010, it might have been the most important game in the team's history.

At the time, the Blackhawks were trying to redefine their identity, trying to reconnect with a fan base that had been become disenfranchised and disinterested.

That Winter Classic event, a loss to defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, was a definite catalyst to that process of redefinition.

The play on the ice, of course, is central to all of this.

Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith. No one playing hockey out of doors compares to the work done by those players and their teammates. But what an event like the Winter Classic did in Chicago was suggested to everyone -- the team, their fans, the city of Chicago, hockey fans across the continent -- 'Hey, we're someone, we deserve to play on these kinds of stages.'

Whether it's coincidence or not, the Blackhawks went to the Western Conference finals that spring and since have won two Stanley Cups and made another appearance in the conference finals.

The Capitals are at a different place in their evolution, although they crave the kind of success the Blackhawks have enjoyed. And while it's true the two teams have no natural history with each other -- something that has been the case at previous Winter Classics -- maybe in the end, the Blackhawks represented the perfect opponent for the Capitals.

"To be honest, the game didn't feel like a regular-season game. It felt a lot more special, a lot more important than your standard regular-season game," said veteran Brooks Laich. "And the bench, when Brouw scored, just erupted, and the fans erupted. And then we were going, 'OK, 13 seconds, just fight and die to win this hockey game. Like, whatever you need to do, we have to win this hockey game.'

"We were able to get it done. I think for our fans, [it was] a very special day. Really happy that we could give them a win. I think we have the best fans in the league. The sport has exploded in D.C. We're lucky to play here, we're privileged to play in front of fans like this every night, a sold-out building. The 'Rock the Red,' the 'Unleash the Fury,' the things the fans do, it's a great place to play and call home, and I hope they enjoy it tonight."

The Capitals have not been beyond the second round of the playoffs since 1998, when they made their only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. They are in a dogfight to simply make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this season. But they are a different team this season with new head coach Barry Trotz and his coaching staff working to redefine the team's on-ice identity.

"We haven't been on the big stage as much as maybe the Chicago Blackhawks the last couple years, and that's an area that we have to improve upon," Trotz said. "But the thing that we have been really good at this year is when we get off what I call 'the rails' a little bit and we lose our focus, we're able to get back and find ways to win. Today was another case in point."

Even Leonsis noted that in the past, if a Caps team blew a 2-0 lead, as was the case Thursday when the Blackhawks erased a 2-0 lead early in the second period, they might wilt. Thursday, they didn't, and the win extended a stretch of solid hockey for the Capitals, who are 9-1-3 in their past 13 games.

"We know we're going to get the best Chicago Blackhawks team on a national stage like this," Capitals' Eric Fehr said. "Playing against them and to match up with them like we did is obviously a confidence builder. We know they're probably the best team in the league right now and a team that we want to be like."

Maybe later this spring, we'll look back on this sunny afternoon in D.C. and recognize it as a catapult to something more for a franchise that is desperate for those kinds of moments. Maybe not.

What is undeniable, though, is that what happened at Nationals Park on Jan. 1, 2015, was another memorable event.

"I was walking to do an interview this morning and there was this mother and daughter, and they had their arms around each other and they just had the biggest smiles on their faces. And I just stopped and I looked at them and one of the ladies blew me a kiss," Leonsis said, when asked about his favorite moment. "Those are kind of moments you want to capture. You want to make lifelong memories, and bringing a game like this to the community was what our intention was. And, obviously, the franchise needed the two points, so to have really, really happy fans and to get two points in the standings feels good."