Five thoughts ahead of Pittsburgh's primetime Winter Classic
The Winter Classic was pushed back due to rain and will be played under the lights
The game could start out slow as both teams get a feel for the rink and conditions
Mario Lemieux played in Friday's alumni game, his first action since retiring in '06
PITTSBURGH -- As the sun set on 2010, so too did the hopes of a Winter Classic going off without a hitch. With rain showers expected throughout the day in Pittsburgh Saturday, the league announced it would push back the annual afternoon game to 8 p.m. at Heinz Field, making it the first primetime Winter Classic.
But the news of the change did little to dampen the excitement surrounding the outdoor game between the Penguins and Capitals. On the eve of the New Year, from the misty morning to the balmy and sun-soaked mid-afternoon, it was ultimately a great day for hockey.
And here are five thoughts to take into 2011:
1. Weather worries. With the game moving to the evening, the teams and league are hopeful that the weather concerns can be put to bed, but that is by no means a certainty. Stoppages due to rain could occur, and the league will change the format of the game accordingly, but there are a lot of fingers crossed that it won't have to come to that. The change in time, though, means the game will be played under the lights at Heinz Field, a thought that really seemed to excite many of the players.
"I'd like [it if] we play [at] night," Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin said. "A little more sleep." Added Capitals star Alex Ovechkin: "You can celebrate New Year's, too."
2. What should we expect once it gets going? Of course, fans of this rivalry are so accustomed to seeing 60 minutes of up-tempo, physical hockey every time the Capitals and Penguins meet. Last week's warm-up delivered a thrilling match that completely lived up to the billing. "Every time we play Pittsburgh it seems like it's like a playoff game," said Washington defenseman Mike Green.
But given the circumstances of tomorrow, don't be surprised if it doesn't quite jump from the start. First periods of these outdoor games typically see both teams adjusting to the conditions, getting a feel for the ice, the rink, the atmosphere. Nobody wants to make an early mistake, especially in front of 70,000 fans. "But after that, I would expect anything to be fair game just like it has been in any other game," Capitals forward David Steckel said.
3. Lemieux suits up. It is everyone's hope that the outcome will be more satisfying than the alumni game, which was played early Friday morning. After 30 minutes of huffing and puffing around the ice, the game between the old hats ended in a 5-5 tie. "I was hoping there would be a shootout, not that I needed to be a part of it," former Penguins forward Gary Roberts said. "But it would've been nice to have a shootout for sure with the guys on our side."
He is, of course, alluding to Mario Lemieux, who suited up and skated before the city that adores him for the first time in five years. Super Mario notched a couple of assists, but his biggest compliment came after the game, when he discussed Sidney Crosby. "Since he's come into the league, he's gotten better and better every year," Lemieux said. "What he did with the 25 game [point streak], it's pretty hard to do in this day and age. It's not the same as it was 20 years ago. ... What he's doing now is much more impressive than what I did years ago."
4. A Coffey break. Another great legend of the game, Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey had plenty of praise of Crosby as well. "I just like that Sid shows up to play every night. That's what I like," the revolutionary defenseman said. "As a former athlete, I like that he comes and he earns his money, every single penny of it." That is what, he says, separates the good players from the great ones like Crosby and Ovechkin.
"There are some guys that unfortunately ... and I'm usually not the kind of guy that says this kind of stuff ... but there are some guys in the league that make money they don't deserve," he said. "But those guys do. ... The thing I always think is: forget the money. Why not try to make some kind of imprint on the game? Why not make 10 All-Star games? Why not win three or four Stanley Cups? Why not score 300 or 400 or 500 goals if you can? People always ask me how did Wayne Gretzky ever score 215 points? I said because he wanted to score 300. That's why. If he got a goal in the first period, forget it. He's going to get three or four. There's nothing worse than when a guy gets an early goal and then shuts it down for the rest of the game. It's cheating the fans; it's cheating everybody. But the good guys, the really good guys that put pressure on themselves -- the Crosbys and the Ovechkins -- they don't do that."
5. Change comes in Washington. It's impossible to talk about this game without mentioning HBO's presence and the 24/7 series that's been chronicling these two teams for the past month. It's been a phenomenal production that's equal parts entertaining and enlightening, probably even for the players themselves.
The Capitals, particularly, had to watch themselves suffer through an eight-game slide; perhaps it helped them realize that something had to change. Over the course of the last five games, they believe something has. They've introduced a tighter, defensively responsible system, which has helped them take four of the last five, dropping only the game against the Penguins in a shootout.
"We tightened it up a little bit to make sure other teams weren't getting as many 2-on-1s, odd man rushes," forward Eric Fehr said. "Over the years, teams just start to learn our system a little better and how to break it down, and I think it was just time to change it up a bit, just to give them a new look. You play the same style long enough, people are going to figure out how to break it, and when that happens, they're going to get a lot of scoring chances."
It was a necessary change for a team that has so heavily relied on its offense. Its flaws laid there exposed for the whole premium-cable-viewership population to see, and players like Green are taking heed in the virtues of defense.
"In the past, we've been a run-and-gun team, and I've just played my role based on what was the norm," he said. "Now, I'm kind of realizing that that's not the way we're going to win as a team, and I need to adjust my game to be better. ... It's about finding balance, and now I'm getting back on track to finding that balance between offense and defense. But I think it was important for us to go through that rough time to really focus on our defensive game because we never had in the past. That was a big reason why we went on a losing streak."