The Capitals celebrate a goal by Eric Fehr in the third period as the Penguins' Sidney Crosby skates by at the Winter Classic at Heinz Field yesterday.
The Capitals' Mike Knuble celebrates a goal against the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury in the second period at the Winter Classic at Heinz Field last night.
The Penguins' Jordan Staal checks Capitals Matt Hendricks along the boards in the first period at the Winter Classic at Heinz Field last night.
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Evgeni Malkin leaps into the bench after scoring in the second period against the Capsitals last night at Heinz Field.
The Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin and the Penguins' Chris Kunitz go at each other near the end of the third period at the Winter Classic at Heinz Field last night.
The Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury stops a shot by the Capitals' Mike Knuble in the first period at the Winter Classic at Heinz Field last night.
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby heads to locker room after losing to the Capitals in the Winter Classic at Heinz Field last night. Crosby was held scoreless for a second consecutive game.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
These are two of hockey's finest teams, which some of the world's premier talents.
Put them on a slab of ice almost anywhere, and you will be rewarded with some breathtaking displays of skill.
Put them on a playing surface like the one Saturday night for the Winter Classic at Heinz Field, and you get a 3-1 Washington victory that might have had the intensity generally associated with the Capitals-Penguins rivalry, but not much of the flash and flair.
Want proof? Penguins center Sidney Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer, did not have a point.
Neither did Washington left winger Alex Ovechkin, one of the most-feared goal-producers in the game.
PG VIDEO: Penguins: Crosby, Bylsama talk about Classic loss
PG VIDEO: Capitals: Boudreau, players talk about Classic win
But Eric Fehr, a Capitals winger who never has realized his offensive potential, scored twice, and teammate Mike Knuble manufactured the kind of blue-collar goal that has long been his forte.
None of that was coincidental, because the Capitals did a better job of reducing the game to its fundamentals than the Penguins, who tended to overpass the puck at times.
"You need to simplify a little more, and I don't know if we did that," Penguins left winger Michael Rupp said. "I think they did. They rimmed pucks around the boards, and, when you do that, you know where the puck's going, and it's a lot more of a consistent game."
The Penguins added a center to their lineup in the Winter Classic -- Jordan Staal made his 2010-11 debut after missing the first 39 games because of a foot infection and broken hand -- but nearly lost another.
In the waning seconds of the second period, Capitals forward David Steckel hit Sidney Crosby from the blind side, appearing to hit Crosby's head with his shoulder.
Crosby went down and looked to be in discomfort after absorbing that blow, but made it to the locker room under his own power and played in the third period.
"I couldn't even tell you what happened," Crosby said. "The puck was going the other way, and I turned. Next thing I know, I'm down. So I can't really comment. It was pretty far behind the play, so maybe the refs didn't even see it."
It's possible that, because the incident appeared to involve a blow to the head, the league office will look into it, even though no penalty was assessed and the contact did not look to be intentional.
"I was backing up," Steckel said. "The puck was going the other way. I was looking the other way. I guess he hit me. I haven't seen it yet. Obviously, it wasn't intentional."
Staal, meanwhile, logged 14 minutes, 38 seconds of ice time -- about half of his usual workload -- and got some work killing penalties as well as skating at even-strength, mostly on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Matt Cooke.
"For my first game, I felt pretty comfortable," Staal said. "Felt pretty good out there."
The Penguins and the crowd of 68,111 -- at least the fans not wearing Capitals sweaters -- felt pretty good when Malkin staked them to a 1-0 lead at 2:13 of the second period.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made a stop on Ovechkin from the slot, and Chris Kunitz collected the rebound. He fed it ahead to Malkin in the neutral zone, and Malkin moved down the right side before putting a shot between the legs of Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov.
But Washington pulled even after Max Talbot was penalized for holding a few minutes later. At 6:54, Knuble jammed a loose puck by Fleury during a scrum, giving him at least one point in each of his past 10 games against the Penguins.
Fehr then put Washington in front to stay at 14:45 as he flipped a shot into an open net from the inner edge of the right circle. Fleury had gone behind his net to play the puck, but it ended up on the stick of Washington's Marcus Johansson, who slid it to Fehr.
"I'll have to see the replay to see what happened," Fleury said. "I stopped and looked around, and the puck was gone."
Getting the lead was critical, because it meant the Penguins had to play from behind in the third in a steady drizzle.
The Penguins declined to use the weather as an excuse -- "It was the same conditions for both teams," Talbot said -- but it's not as if both teams needed a goal.
The Capitals got one, anyway, as Fehr slipped behind the Penguins' defense and beat Fleury at 11:59 to give Washington its margin of victory.
"We weren't really trying to go for offense at that point," he said.
Which might be, on a night like this, why the Capitals were able to generate it.