December wasn’t a kind month to the Washington Capitals. They finished with a 5-6-3 record, and they’re happy to put the month – and the eight-game losing streak that plagued the bulk of it – behind them.
There is perhaps no better way to do that than by playing in the NHL’s Winter Classic, especially against rival Pittsburgh on Saturday night. With the game just a day away, the Caps finally got a chance to skate on the ice, and while players and Coach Bruce Boudreau called the ice “terrible,” they were still struck by the excitement of the game.
“When you walked in here today and you saw thousands of people in the stands and you look at the enormity of the building and you go, ‘Wow, this is going to be a real cool event,’” Boudreau said.
Added defenseman John Carlson: “It’s pretty cool. The guys are going on the ice, and you see smiles from everyone.”
What makes the event even more special is the rivalry between the Capitals and Penguins that has evolved over the years; the personal battle between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby has lifted the rivalry to a whole new level. It isn’t just those two that feel it, though: even rookie center Marcus Johansson said he hates the Penguins “a lot.”
The matchup of the two teams comes at a time when the Penguins are one of the hottest teams in the NHL and the Caps are just a few games away from their worst losing streak in the Boudreau era.
One of the reasons for the slump was Ovechkin’s struggles in the scoring department. He’s been down this year, but during the streak, he was notably cold – just two goals.
“It’s all on me,” Ovechkin said. “I have a chance to score goals, I have to score it.”
He did give a possible glimpse of what some have postulated about Ovechkin’s lower goal totals so far this season – that he’s trying to pace himself and be ready for the postseason.
“I’m just worried about right now my conditioning – what’s going to happen in the future in a couple months,” he admitted. “It’s the most important thing for me right now.”
Ovechkin’s last two games have resulted in two goals, which is possibly a sign he’s beginning to break out.
“Of course I have an empty net goal,” Ovechkin joked, “so I feel pretty good.”
The NHL will be hoping Ovechkin continues to get back on track Saturday night when he’s on the biggest stage of the year, but it’s going to take a full-team effort to beat the red-hot Penguins, who beat Washington in a shootout on December 23rd.
The atmosphere for the game will be built up more than usual, but center Mathieu Perreault – who will be playing with a broken nose suffered last week – thinks the team will be able to be focused, even with the excitement surrounding it all.
“As soon as you get on the ice, the excitement goes,” he said. “And you don’t really think about it. It’s exciting to play in from of 20,000 people, and now it’s gonna be 60, so it’s gonna be fun.”
In the end, the game is worth two points in the standings, and nothing more – on paper. But for the players and coaches, as much as they downplay it, it means much more.
“We’re all people that want the game of hockey to grow, and this is a big deal,” Boudreau said. “To be part of this is very lucky, and in five years you’re going to sit back and whether you’re ever in one of these things again, it’s going to be a great thing.”