Winter Classic: Penguins, Capitals prepared for anything in 'cool' event, weather or not
December 29, 2010 10:00 AM
Workers erect temporary stands on Tuesday in the south end of Heinz Field for the Winter Classic.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Washington winger Mike Knuble has accomplished a lot during his National Hockey League career.
He has appeared in more than 900 games. Put up about 500 points. Played for two Stanley Cup winners.
There is at least one thing he hasn't done yet, however. And won't until Saturday morning.
"That will be the only time where you'll ever have to wake up and open up the curtains to see what you're going to get for your hockey game," he said.
That's because, he will be playing an outdoors game that counts for the first time when the Penguins and Capitals meet in the Winter Classic at Heinz Field that afternoon.
And he hardly is the only one.
Indeed, while the Winter Classic is Game No. 566 on the 2010-11 NHL schedule, it will be "Outdoors Game Whose Result Really Matters No. 1," for most of the participants.
Skating outdoors won't be entirely new for most -- "Growing up in Minnesota, you played Pee-Wees and Mites out on a pond and in outdoor rinks," said Penguins defenseman Paul Martin -- but doing it when two points are at stake is.
They'll discover quickly that there almost certainly will be conditions -- be it wind or rain or glare or snow or some combination thereof -- that could have a profound impact on how the game plays out. And that they will be unlike anything with which players must deal in a conventional game.
"You just have to adapt to whatever there is," Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "The cold, the wind. Just have fun with it. Definitely try to win, but have fun with it."
Although the weather has been fairly cooperative in the league's first three Winters Classics -- staged in Buffalo in 2008, Chicago in 2009 and Boston in 2010 -- being outdoors generally introduces variables that can't be ignored.
When the Penguins faced Buffalo at Ralph Wilson Stadium three years ago, there was heavy snow before and after the game, and enough during the latter stages of play that advancing the puck sometimes became an adventure.
Players carrying it were in constant danger of stickhandling nothing but air, because the puck all but stopped sliding after accumulating snow as it was moving, and numerous passes didn't reach their target because of the coating on the ice.
"As the game went on, with the amount of snow that was coming down, you had to keep it simple," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "It was pretty hard to carry the puck without it bouncing or slowing down a little bit. You just tried to keep the puck moving."
The snow caused visibility problems, too, at least for some players. Not because it came down so hard, but because it affected the vision of players wearing visors. Most eventually discarded them.
Winger Jason Chimera is one of the few Capitals with outdoor experience at the NHL level. He was with Edmonton when the Oilers faced Montreal in the Heritage Classic Nov. 22, 2003.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "It's a cool event."
Actually, "cool" didn't begin to describe what it was like in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium that day. Reports placed the wind-chill factor at minus-22.
That kind of weather would do wonderful things for hot chocolate sales at the concession stands, but hardly would make for high-quality hockey. Just about everyone agrees on what the optimum conditions would be.
"Sunny and cold," Penguins right winger Tyler Kennedy said. "Around 30 [degrees] would be fine. And sunny. A little bit of snow on the ground, but not on the ice."
There's a consensus on the worst-case scenario, too.
"Rain and warm temperatures," Kennedy said.
Capitals defenseman John Erskine has another concern.
"If it's snowing, that just makes it more enjoyable," he said. "It makes it feel more like when you're a kid, playing. But if the winds pick up, that won't be too much fun."
What the weather will be like Saturday isn't certain, which means players still don't know exactly how they'll have to adjust their games. Few appear to be dwelling on it, though.
"I'm not worried about anything," Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. "I'll take it with a grain of salt and keep going.
"No matter what happens, it's going to be just as much fun as if it were perfect conditions."