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Troy Brouwer lifts Capitals to last-minute win over Blackhawks

Patrick Kane skates around Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen in the first period of Thursday's Winter Classic at Nationals Park. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON — Standing in the middle of a baseball clubhouse with a dozen cameras in his face, shortly after playing an outdoor hockey game in front of 42,832 fans, Niklas Hjalmarsson was just glad it was all over.

“It’s been kind of a circus around here for the last couple weeks,” Hjalmarsson said. “Can’t wait to go into the locker room and sit in the players’ lounge and not have a camera in our face.”

The circus left town on Thursday night, as the Blackhawks headed back to Chicago for a return to the indoors and a return to normalcy following a gut-punch of a 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park in the Winter Classic. Former teammate Troy Brouwer scored the game-winner with 12.9 seconds left as Jonathan Toews sat in the penalty box with a scowl on his face following a hotly contested hooking call with 1:13 left in the game.

It was a ticky-tack call, but it followed a similarly weak call that went the Hawks way, as Matt Niskanen was sent off for boarding two minutes earlier. The Hawks couldn’t capitalize on that power play — just as they couldn’t score on a critical 91-second 5-on-3 power play in the second period — and the Hawks felt it was a makeup call. By the time Toews was called for the hook, the Hawks had had six power plays, the Capitals just two.

“I don’t know how much that play deserved a call there, or how much it had to do with maybe us getting a few more opportunities on the power play previously in the game,” Toews said. “They got the bounce they were looking for, 12 seconds left. And we walk away with nothing. It’s not a good feeling, especially with the excitement, the hype, the energy that surrounded this whole thing, leading up to this game.”

The Winter Classic had loomed large throughout the past month or so, even as the Hawks tore through a tough schedule, going 13-2-1 leading into the game. And it was quite an event, the two teams entering the rink via an iced-over “reflecting pool” in front of a fake U.S. Capitol building in center field. But once Billy Idol was done performing, and the two teams decided the sun glare was bearable, it was largely just another hockey game.

And just like in the previous three, the Hawks fell behind early. Eric Fehr pounced on a Brent Seabrook misplay at the blue line and beat Corey Crawford on a breakaway at 7:01 of the first. Five minutes later, after the teams switched sides to even out the effect of the sun, Alex Ovechkin scored on a Mike Green rebound to make it 2-0.

But as they did Monday night against Nashville, the Hawks rallied. Patrick Sharp scored on the power play less than two minutes after Ovechkin’s goal, and Brandon Saad put in a feed from Toews to tie it 3:15 into the second period. Toews became the all-time leading scorer in outdoor games (he’s been in three now) with two goals and three assists.

As the sun went down, the tension rose. And with Toews in the box, Ovechkin’s stick shattered and a delayed penalty was called on Saad. The momentary distraction allowed Brouwer to pick up the loose puck, wheel around and fire it past Crawford for the victory — one that still wasn’t sealed until Braden Holtby made a big kick save on Patrick Kane in the final seconds.

“The finish couldn’t have worked out any better,” Brouwer said.

Well, it could have for the Hawks. But now they get back to business as usual. And not a moment too soon.

“It’s a fun process, it was a great experience,” said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville. “I think that if we could have left here with a point, we would have been a lot happier.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus