WASHINGTON (AP) — The Winter Classic began with perhaps a bit too much sun. By the end, seat cushions were falling from the sky.
The latest NHL outdoor game had a cliffhanger ending Thursday, with Troy Brouwer scoring with 12.9 seconds remaining to give the Washington Capitals a 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in the league’s annual showcase.
Many of the 42,832 fans at Nationals Park celebrated by flinging their commemorative red cushions high into the air, an exclamation point to an event that helped validate the nation’s capital as an established hockey town.
The seventh Winter Classic featured a replica of the Capitol in center field, through which the players entered the ballpark. They stood on a sheet of blue ice meant to represent the Reflecting Pool during the nation anthem, then faced off under a gorgeous blue sky — too gorgeous, if truth be told.
The sun’s glare on the white ice of the main rink made it difficult to see the puck, and Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner made good on his plan to play the game wearing sunglasses.
The teams switched sides at the 10-minute mark of the first period to even things out as the shadows from the stands began to cover the rink. It seemed totally unfair when Patrick Sharp launched a sun-to-shade slap shot that beat goalie Braden Holtby on a power play for Chicago’s first goal.
The NHL considered delaying the start, concerned that the sunny skies would compromise ice conditions and player safety, but the go-ahead was given after the pregame skate. There was more incentive than usual this year to start on time: A lengthy postponement would have put the Classic head-to-head with the first semifinal of the new College Football Playoff.
Eric Fehr, whose goals can be few and far between when he is covered by a roof, became the unlikely career leader in outdoor NHL hockey with the game’s opening goal.
Fehr turned into an instant Capitals legend when he scored twice in the rain during the 2011 Winter Classic win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field, and his breakaway in the first period on Thursday added to the disproportionate Jan. 1 output for someone who averages about eight goals per season.
Alex Ovechkin, the player most responsible for the sport’s rising popularity in D.C. over the last decade, made it 2-0 with his first outdoor goal, knocking in a rebound and prompting chants of “O-vee!” from seats that usually echo with cheers for Nationals stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
Fehr wasn’t all perfect. In the second period, he lost track of Brandon Saad, who made a beeline toward the net and took a feed from Jonathan Toews to tie the score at 2.
The deciding goal resulted from a sequence that had all the makings of a makeup call. After Washington’s Matt Niskanen was sent off for a marginal boarding penalty with 3:11 to play, Toews was cited for an even more dicey hooking infraction with 1:13 remaining.
The Capitals capitalized in a wild sequence in which Saad slashed Alzner’s stick in the left circle. As Alzner raised his hands to make sure the officials saw the penalty, Brouwer — who was trailing behind — pounced on the loose puck and drove in the winning shot.
And the seat cushions flew.
NOTES: The NHL is meticulous when it comes to reporting the weather for these outdoor games. The league announced the opening faceoff temperature down to a tenth of a degree: 43.3 degrees. … Billy Idol, Gavin DeGraw and Lee Greenwood were among the musical guests who performed during pregame and intermissions. … The Capitals have won five of seven.
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