Winter Classic 2011 Draws Best Regular Season TV Audience In 36 Years

Propelled by Eric Fehr's two goals, the Washington Capitals beat the rain and the Pittsburgh Penguins by a 3-1 score in the NHL's 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field.

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Winter Classic 2011: Penguins, Capitals Becomes The Highest Rated TV Game Since 1975

Get used to it, everybody. Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin sells. 

Saturday's Winter Classic, which feature the two players and their teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, was the highest-rated regular season hockey game since the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers met in April 1975. 

From an NBC press release:

The 2011 NHL Winter Classic, broadcast on New Year's Day by NBC Sports in primetime due to a weather delay, was the most-watched Winter Classic ever, up 22 percent vs. last year's game and the most-watched NHL regular-season game in 36 years, according to fast national data provided by Nielsen Media Research. In four years the NHL Winter Classic, which Newsday called "a holiday tradition" and the New York Times said "has stolen New Year's Day," has averaged 4.1 million viewers on NBC. Saturday's game was seen by 4.5 million viewers, up 22 percent vs. last year (3.7 million), and earned a 2.3 national rating and 4 share (8-11 p.m. ET), up 10 percent vs. last year (2.1/4, 1-4 p.m. ET).

The game did a whopping 32.0 rating in the Pittsburgh market, according to NBC, as well as a 7.6 in the Washington market. Baltimore was a close third, coming in with a 6.6 rating. 

This is all obviously very good for the Winter Classic and the NHL in general. The numbers aren't anything compared to football, but there's been a general upward trend since the lockout. Now, as the NHL revs up for negotiations on a new television rights deal in the United States, they have leverage. That's huge for the league. 

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Winter Classic 2011, Final Score: Capitals 3, Penguins 1

Eric Fehr scored two goals to lead the Washington Capitals over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field. It's not just a run of the mill win, though. All you have to do is look at the end of the game to know that this isn't just another game. Yes, it's obviously different than a normal game -- it's outside.

But the players don't just brush this thing off as some gimmick. They genuinely want to win this thing more than the typical game. Alex Ovechkin was jumping up and down like a giddy little school girl as the final horn went off, as were the rest of the Capitals. 

Even knowing they were going to lose with just under two seconds left, the Penguins didn't just lie down and go home, either. Things got nasty in the latter stages of the game, with an attempted brawl breaking out before the final face off.

The story of the week in the run up to the game was the weather, and rain fell on the ice periodically throughout the game. The NHL has to be breathing a sigh of relief tonight, though, as the weather didn't really impact the game. The ice wasn't good, but it didn't cause any injury and the game didn't have to be called early. That's really all they can ask for, right?

Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were both held without points. Each finished a minus-1, as well. For the folks who hate the hype surrounding those two, that's gotta feel good. It's a team game, right?

The announced attendance: 68,111. 

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Winter Classic 2011: Eric Fehr's Breakaway Goal Expands Capitals Lead To 3-1 (VIDEO)

Bad ice? What about bad ice? 

Using fantastic passing on a little give-and-go play in the neutral zone, the Capitals broke Eric Fehr out on a breakaway, and No. 16 didn't miss out on the opportunity. Fehr put the shot top shelf on Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Capitals a 3-1 lead late in the third period. 

Video of the goal:

The Penguins are up against the wall now, and they'll need some late game heroics if they're going to improve to 2-0 in Winter Classics. 

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VIDEO: Marc-Andre Fleury Mistake Leads To Eric Fehr Goal; Capitals Lead 2011 Winter Classic 2-1

In the second episode of HBO's 24/7 Penguins-Capitals, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma talked with his coaching staff about how the hand-offs between goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and his defense left a lot to be desired. Apparently, that's still a problem for the Penguins.

Handling the puck behind the net, Fleury misjudged where the incoming Capitals forecheckers were and allowed Marcus Johansson to lift the puck right off his stick. Johansson quickly shoveled the puck in front of the net, where Eric Fehr was able to bang the puck into an empty net. 

2-1 Capitals, and that's how we end the second period. 

Video of the goal:

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VIDEO: Capitals' Mike Knuble Scores, Ties 2011 Winter Classic At 1-1

With Max Talbot in the box for holding and the Capitals on the power play, Mike Green stepped into the slot and fell. The loose puck bobbled around in front of the net where Mike Knuble found it and poked it past Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

It's Knuble's ninth goal of the season and it tied up the 2011 Winter Classic at 1-1 with about 14 minutes left in the second period. Assists went to Nicklas Backstrom and Green. 

Video of the goal:

The Capitals seem to be rolling now, getting sustained pressure in the Pittsburgh end for several shifts following the goal. 

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VIDEO: Evgeni Malkin's 14th Goal Gives Penguins 1-0 Lead Over Capitals In 2011 Winter Classic

Marc-Andre Fleury flipped the puck out of the defensive zone and out to center ice. Along the wall, Evgeni Malkin picked up the loose puck, used a burst of speed to get by the one defenseman standing between him and the goal, and went in on net alone.

A simple Malkin shot through the five hole of goaltender Seymon Varlamov gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead, followed by an awesome celebration where Malkin essentially jumped into his teammates on the bench. 

Video of the goal: 

Seconds after the goal, Brooks Laich of the Capitals stormed the crease of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. He was whistled for goaltender interference, giving the Penguins a man advantage. The Capitals were able to successfully kill it off, though. Things are certainly getting chippy. 

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Penguins Alumni, Capitals Alumni Tie 5-5 In Outdoor Game At Heinz Field

Mario Lemieux and the Penguins' alumni tied Peter Bondra and the Capitals' alumni on Friday morning in a friendly game at Heinz Field. Jimmy Rixner of SB Nation Pittsburgh was there. He filed this report:

Mario Lemieux skated for the Penguins and showed off some excellnt hands in making a few good dishes. Lemieux tallied a couple of assists. Ron Francis also had a multi-point effort.

Paul Coffey, even in advanced age, showed off the magnificent skating ability that made him the NHL's premiere offensive defenseman in his day.

[...]

In the end though, the Caps Peter Bondra, a tremendous goal scorer in his own right, stepped into a slapper to tie the game and that's how it ended. With the crowd clamoring to "let them play" it was decided that would not happen - as the ice needed to be cleaned and readied for a practice for the current day Penguins as they prepare to meet the Washington Capitals in tomorrow's main event.

Head over to SB Nation Pittsburgh and Pensburgh for more coverage from the Penguins perspective. Head over to SB Nation DC and Japers' Rink for the Capitals side of the story.

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Winter Classic 2011: Should Weather, Rain Affect Saturday's Game, NHL Has 'Maximum Flexibility'

The optimal outcome for this weekend's Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals is the scenario that's been planned for weeks: after about a half hour of NBC pre-game, the puck drops around 1:30 p.m. without issue.

As the forecast continues to look grim, however, with rain in the forecast for most of Saturday afternoon, the NHL is kicking their backup plans into overdrive. The League's chief operating officer, John Collins, briefed reporters on Thursday afternoon. 

"We're planning to play at 1 o'clock. We've got maximum flexibility to do what we need to do to get that game in on Saturday. If for some reason it was completely unplayable, we have other options, but we fully expect to get the game in on Saturday."

That "maximum flexibility" involves the other two options the NHL has at their disposal. They could push the game back to later on Saturday afternoon, or they could even postpone the game until Sunday, January 2. 

Collins stressed that it's not the end of the world, and that this weather isn't the kind of thing that will lead to an all-out cancellation of the outdoor game. 

"Hopefully [the weather] is going to change," he said. " ... We're not talking about a blizzard. We're not talking about lightning. We're not talking about tremendously high winds. We're not talking about any of those type of things that would create that kind of a crisis. We'll do what we need to do."

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