5 Things: Winter Classic preview

January, 1, 2011
1/01/11
2:40
PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Here are five things to watch in Saturday night's Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins:

1. The weather, of course


Fearful of having rain spoil its traditional afternoon time slot, the NHL took the proactive move of moving the game from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. ET. And given how the rain was falling Saturday morning, it looked like a good move. You have to give the league and its partners credit for not trying to jam the game in early; there was the potential for a disaster with delays as well as a potential cancellation.

Will the move ultimately pay off, or does Mother Nature have more tricks up her sleeve? That will be the question as the day goes on. Early in the day, for instance, the forecast called for rain showers early in the evening, but temperatures are supposed to fall down to about 28 degrees by evening with a strong breeze. As long as the rain does stop, the game should be a go.

If the rain doesn't let up, though, the game could be moved to Sunday, and the Classic could become something less than that.

Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said one of the lessons he and the Penguins learned by playing in the snow in the 2008 Classic in Buffalo was to not get too wound up about the unexpected.

"I think just keeping a pretty open mind about everything and not getting too caught up if there's delays," Crosby said after Saturday's morning skate at Consol Energy Center. "[We're] pretty much expecting that. I think you're better off expecting that. If you don't [have one], it's great. If you do, at least you're ready for it.

"We're expecting to have to adjust or expecting delays and things like that because it's quite possible," he said.

Assuming the game is played Saturday, it will be interesting to see if television ratings warrant real discussion about moving the game to prime time moving forward.

2. Goaltending

Semyon Varlamov will get the start for the Caps on Saturday as the team continues to wait for one of its two young netminders to emerge as a starter down the stretch.

Varlamov was hurt at the beginning of the season, and Michal Neuvirth earned some early rookie-of-the-year talk with his strong early play. After wobbling a bit, Neuvirth looked like he might be seizing the moment, but his minor injury around Christmas put Varlamov back in the starting role. Varlamov has responded with two straight wins and has stopped 58 of the past 60 shots he's faced.

"Well, I think they both want this job," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said Saturday morning. "And I mean, if Neuvy hadn't have got hurt the day after Christmas, he would still be playing. But he got hurt, and then all of a sudden Varly gets a chance, and he plays a great against Carolina and he shuts out Montreal. How can you not give him the start?"

Both youngsters (they are both 22) have shown they have the tools to be good NHL goaltenders, but they are also thin on experience. Varlamov has been the goalie of record the past two postseasons and has been good but not great. There are also questions about his durability given the number of injuries he's battled through the past couple of years. Neuvirth is considered technically superlative and was terrific in the postseason playing in the American Hockey League.

Look for Boudreau to give both playing time until the last quarter of the season, at which point he is hoping one goalie will step forward and grab the job heading into the playoffs.

"It doesn't have to happen anytime soon," Boudreau said. "I think they're both really competitive guys having a friendly competition of who wants to be No. 1. But it will happen in the last quarter of the season, I would think."

The problem will be if both goalies suffer from inconsistent play, a situation that would put pressure on GM George McPhee to find a veteran netminder before the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

3. Reality TV

Saturday's game, assuming it gets played, will bring to an end the NHL's groundbreaking experiment with HBO and the cable network's "24/7" series. Cameras have been following the two teams day and night since early December.

The four-part series has drawn rave reviews for its uncompromising look at the internal workings of two of the league's highest-profile teams. But it will be interesting to see if there is a repeat. The Capitals especially have acknowledged that having the cameras around made getting on track during an eight-game winless streak more difficult. Some of the players said they were getting weary of questions about the network and the Classic itself.

"I'm a hockey player, not an actor. I'm not getting paid by HBO to give them a bunch of lines and a bunch of scenes and this and that," Caps forward Brooks Laich after the team's practice Saturday morning at Consol. "The most important thing here isn't the spectacle, it's that we win this hockey game. What's going to be any fun [if we lose]? It's like losing in the Super Bowl. Do you think it's any fun for the losing team? They don't want to talk about it."

Not that Laich was completely down on the process. He talked about being able to share the experience with his family, especially Friday's family skate at Heinz Field.

"That being said, after our work is done, getting the chance to have my dad out on the ice and friends and family, it was a very special time," Laich said. "It would be very nice to have a win on top of it."

4. Missing in action

A lot has been made of Alex Ovechkin's uncharacteristic season in terms of point production, but he's not alone in not meeting lofty expectations.

Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin is on pace for his lowest point total since joining the NHL in 2006. Meanwhile, there are a few Caps players who would like to use the Winter Classic to get back on track. Alexander Semin has not scored in 11 games after scoring 18 times in his first 25 contests. Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals' gifted top center, has gone 13 games without a goal.

If we accept that Saturday's game is a statement kind of game, then no better time for some of these players to step up.

5. Reversing trends

Now that Ty Conklin isn't playing in every Winter Classic (he played in the first two plus the Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003), we have to look at other historic Winter Classic trends.

Each of the visiting teams the past three years has gone on to play in the Stanley Cup finals. That's the good news. The bad news: all three, Pittsburgh in 2008, Detroit in 2009 and Philadelphia in 2010 -- have lost in the finals.

Would the Caps be happy to see that trend continue? For a team that has been to one Cup finals in its history (1998), we're guessing Washington players would say that would be OK.


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