On the eve of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, the Pittsburgh Penguins are preparing for one familiar foe in the Washington Capitals, and one lesser-known adversary – the weather.
After weeks of temperatures that rarely climbed above freezing, New Year’s Eve finds Pittsburgh in the midst of a winter heatwave. The balmy weather, with temperatures in the 50s, would sound downright terrific for December 31, if not for the Winter Classic looming at Heinz Field. Making matters worse, Saturday’s forecast calls for steady rain throughout the afternoon.
Because cooler and drier conditions are expected in the evening, the NHL has moved the game to an 8 p.m. start time. Still, the players know the elements could come into play, but said they’re ready for whatever the day has in store.
“Probably on the lake when I was 12 was the last time,” said forward Max Talbot of the drizzle that rained down on the Penguins’ practice Friday. “It’s something that doesn’t happen often, and it was pretty cool.
“The ice got a little chippy after that, but it didn’t stop us from having fun; it didn’t stop us from getting ready. And it’s something that we need to be strong [about] mentally.”
“There may be a few things you can plan for and make sure you’re ready but, other than that, I think you have to have a pretty open mind,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “You’ve just got to go with it.”
Moving the start time, as opposed to planning on a 1 p.m. start that might have encountered significant rain delays, was a better scenario for the players.
“It is an issue in that scenario where you warm up and might not play, then you cool down and have to warm up again,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “Mentally, it could be an issue if it dragged out for a couple of hours.”
It’s also a better scenario for fans – both those in attendance and those watching at home. A game plagued by rain delays would have been frustrating for both, while a possible rescheduled game Sunday looked to have a frustratingly early start time, likely 9 a.m. Eastern, to accommodate NBC’s football obligations.
And now, the 2011 Winter Classic looks like it will have the distinction of being the first to be played in prime time.
“I think it’ll be great either way,” Crosby said. “I don’t see anything wrong with playing beneath the lights here; I think that’d be pretty nice.”
Although neither team can predict the elements, or do much to prepare for them, it’s a safe bet that both have a pretty good idea of what to expect from their opponent by now. That’s particularly true of Bylsma and Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau.
“We go back – a couple years at Hershey, I played for Bruce for a couple games, and we’ve certainly coached a number of games against each other,” he said. “I think the teams and the tendencies that they have, I’m not sure there’s going to be any surprises between the two of us. How he likes to get his players out there – the last game we played, I was maybe a little bit surprised about the lineup that he did go with and some of the switches he did make.
“But I can guess when [Alex] Ovechkin is going to get out there sometimes, based on the situation in the game and where the faceoff is at, and sometimes [Boudreau] does a double shift on you to get Ovechkin back out there. There are some things that you know are going to happen in the game. [They’re] a talented team with some very good tendencies offensively.”
Just as predictable is the certainty that neither team will let the big stage of the Winter Classic detract from what’s at stake – two regular-season NHL points in what has been a tight battle for the top of the Eastern Conference.
“It’s going to be big, it’s going to be fun but, in the end, it’s really about Pittsburgh and Washington going at it for the two points,” Talbot said.
“It’s not going to be an All-Star Game out there. We’re going to chip the puck, we’re going to go and finish our checks, having the same forecheck, same power play and PK, trying to score some goals, crash the net. We’re going to do what we do.”
Crosby echoed that sentiment, saying that the best way for the Penguins to prepare for the Capitals is to focus on their own game.
“I think any rivalry brings out the best in your team if you respond the right way and I think, in the past, we have. There should be a certain level of confidence there, but I don’t think we want to get caught up thinking about the other team too much. We’ve got to worry about ourselves and what we have to do.”
That includes keeping the Winter Classic in perspective as not only an event, but a meaningful game.
“It’s not that hard at all; it’s why we play,” Crosby said. “It’s pretty special. We know not every team gets this chance, especially to host it. I think everyone just tries to take it in as much as they can.
“We’ve got to work hard, and we’ve got to have fun doing it.”