January 1 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field
Time: 8:00 pm TV: NBC Radio: 820AM, 1370AM, 1500AM and XM
Washington Capitals (22-12-5)
Pittsburgh Penguins (25-11-3)
Washington opens the calendar 2011 portion of its 2010-11 schedule with the most storied regular season contest of its 36-year existence. The Caps take on their fiercest rivals – the Pittsburgh Penguins – in an outdoor game at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s Steelers.
The Saturday game – originally slated to be an afternoon contest before being rescheduled for Saturday night – is billed as the Winter Classic, the fourth annual New Year’s Day outdoor contest since the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres started the tradition on New Year’s Day, 2008.
For both teams, the game is merely one of 82, a regular season game with two points to the winning team. But for the players and the fans, the outdoor setting is a return to the game’s roots. Ice hockey has been played indoors only for the last century or so, and virtually every NHL player gets his start skating on frozen ponds, lakes, rivers and/or homemade backyard rinks.
The specter of potentially inclement weather is hanging over the 2011 Winter Classic. After weeks of perfect Winter Classic weather – cold and gray – in the Northeast, there is at least an 80 percent chance of rain during the middle of Saturday, so late on Friday the 1 p.m. Saturday start was pushed back to 8 p.m. on Saturday.
Caps players don’t believe the change will have much of an effect on them.
“It doesn’t make that big of a difference,” says Caps center Marcus Johansson. “We always play night games, anyway. We know what we’re going to do. We’ll just go back to our normal preparations. It’s going to be fun anyway.”
“I think will be more of a routine,” says caps left wing Jason Chimera. “You can go have a morning skate and then get your pre-game meal and have your nap or whatever guys do in the afternoon. It will be more like a regular day. It won’t be a big deal.”
The prime time start might attract a larger television audience, too.
“It’s more people that could be watching,” says Caps blueliner Scott Hannan. “I think it’s going to be great. There are a lot of people excited about it back home. It’s what everybody’s talking about, friends and family. I think it’s going to be an exciting game.”
Both teams had a chance to practice on the Winter Classic sheet at Heinz Field on Friday in good weather conditions. It was a special day that started with the Caps alumni skating to a 5-5 tie in a game against the Pens alumni.
“It was unbelievable, just looking around at the stands, it almost didn’t seem real that I was here,” says rookie Caps center Jay Beagle. “It was pretty special even throwing on the jersey and having the jersey on and walking out with the boys. It’s just so exciting.”
It’s too bad the league can’t move Friday’s nearly ideal weather to Saturday.
“If we woke up and played at noon or 1 o’clock today it would have been perfect,” says Chimera. “I think the ice was probably a little better for their practice. It was a little sloppy for ours. If the NHL could have pushed it up to today it would have been perfect. Too bad you can’t push up games instead of push back games.”
“We were all having a good time out there whether the ice is perfect or not,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “At the end if the day, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why we wanted to get out there and skate as a team. Little things like that that everyone can enjoy build the team morale. We’re really excited.”
Until the Winter Classic franchise took hold and the league began prohibiting other teams from playing on the first day of the year, New Year’s Day was a staple for the Capitals. Washington hosted a New Year’s Day game every year from 1990-2009. The Caps are 14-6-3-1 all-time on New Year’s Day.
The last 23 of those 24 New Year’s Day contests were played at home. Washington’s only previous road contest on the first day of the year came in 1977 when the Caps suffered a 3-1 loss to the Leafs in Toronto in the middle of their fourth season in the league.
Since putting a halt to an eight-game winless (0-6-2) streak, the Capitals are 4-0-1 in their last five games. Their lone blemish during those five games was a 3-2 shootout loss to the Penguins at Verizon Center last Thursday.
A renewed commitment to defense has highlighted the team’s turnaround. In their last seven games, the Caps have surrendered just a dozen goals. Washington netminders Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov have combined for a 1.69 GAA and a .938 save pct. during that stretch.
Washington’s penalty killing corps has also performed well of late. The Caps have killed off 16 consecutive shorthanded situations and they’ve successfully snuffed out 22 of the last 23 (95.7%).
During the life of Washington’s winless streak, the Caps were outscored at a rate of better than 2-to-1 in even-strength situations. They’ve turned that corner as well, posting a 14-6 advantage over their opponents at even strength in their last five contests.
Even with a 2-1 shootout setback at the hands of the Islanders in New York on Wednesday in their most recent contest, the Penguins are 18-3-2 in their last 23 games.
Pittsburgh ranks second in the NHL with just 2.3 goals against per game and fifth with 3.2 goals scored per contest. The Pens are the league’s top shorthanded outfit with a kill rate of 87.5% on the season.
For the Penguins, center Jordan Staal is said to be a game-time decision according to Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. He has missed all of the season to date with hand and foot injuries, but has skated a few times this week including Friday at Heinz Field.
Players on both sides are jacked up for Saturday’s game, regardless of start time.
“The first game was a great game,” says Chimera of the first meeting between the two teams two days before Christmas. “The atmosphere was great. The game was hard-fought and hard-hitting, and it was as close to a playoff game as you can get in the regular season. There was a lot of hype with HBO and all the anticipation leading up to the game, but it lived up to it. It was a fun game to play in.”
“We can’t wait to play that game,” exudes Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “It’s not about the ice. It’s not about having ideal conditions for us. It’s about getting two points, playing a hockey game and at the same time putting on a good show for everybody.
“There are going to be 65,000 people that are coming to watch us. There are a lot of other factors. The weather is just a little speed bump that’s in the way. If we have to play at 1 o’clock or if we have to play at 12 o’clock at night it doesn’t matter as long as we get to play.”
Notes: The Capitals are 4-0 in afternoon games – games started prior to 6 p.m. – this season … The Penguins’ power play is 1-for-18 (5.6%) in the last five games.