Cross Checks: 2011 Winter Classic

As you might imagine, the Winter Classic dominated our weekly rants. Again, yet another reminder that the rant blog is for RANTS. If you have hockey questions, check in with me during my weekly chats (Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET). Let's get at it:

GolfingDevil05: The Winter Classic is a great example of why the NHL is different from the other three major team sports in North America. If you try to market this as a matchup of the two best players (as opposed to it being about those players' teams), you end up with a storyline where neither of them scored a point in the game, which means that to the sports fans who know nothing about hockey, the game is a failure. Welcome to hockey: Things don't always go as planned.

For next year's game, why not think outside of the states of Pennsylvania, New York or Massachusetts? I know the press seems to [think] everyone in the country lives there, but in reality, we've got some great teams out in the Western Conference that should be showcased. I think the game that no one seems to be talking about that would be a fantastic match up is L.A. vs. Colorado at Invesco Field in Denver. Two good, rising young teams that look poised to be dominant forces over the next several years meeting head-to-head outdoors seems like a can't miss matchup to anyone who isn't myopically attached to the idea that TV audiences only matter on the East Coast.

My take: Funny you should mention Kings-Avs in Denver because that’s just the matchup I was talking about with colleagues over the weekend in Pittsburgh. Both clubs are young, exciting teams. I spoke with an Avs source who said that while the team is interested in hosting a Winter Classic, there are some factors the Avs want to examine as well. So they're a little hesitant at this point, it would appear to me anyway. The Rangers-Flyers matchup for next year, one which I reported over the weekend, is not the media's idea as you said above, but rather a concept the league is really excited about, according to a source. So don't shoot the messenger here. I'm not even sure the Flyers are that interested at this point, but I know the NHL would love that matchup. As NHL COO John Collins intimated at a news conference last week in Pittsburgh, the Winter Classic is not a democratic process in which all 30 teams will get to host it. The league will focus on big markets and maybe even return to some (i.e. Chicago, Boston) over the next decade.

kap9562: Pierre, YOU ARE A CANADIAN!!!! Since that is the case, why have you not done a rebuttal article against your buddy Scott Burnside who suggested there is no need for the Heritage Classic in Canada! I mean I agree with him that the Winter Classic is important to gain new fans in the U.S.A and I'm not even against only using American teams for it. BUT we could at least have another outdoor game for the nation that Gary Bettman himself called "the engine of the NHL," cant we? Just because Canada is a hockey hotbed does not mean it should be ignored, the mid to late 90's should teach us that when Canada gets hurt by the NHL (Winnipeg and Quebec leaving), it does effect NHL interest in Canada, which was lower than then it is now. GROW THE GAME IN BOTH COUNTRIES NOT JUST ONE! STICK UP FOR YOUR ROOTS MAN!

My take: I am Canadian, but I'm totally in agreement with Burnside on this one. I think the NHL made a critical mistake in handing out a second NHL outdoor game. What makes the Winter Classic so special is that it's once a year, it's unique, that's why sponsors, advertisers and TV folks are drooling over it. Now with two games 50 days apart, well, I think you run a great risk of diluting that product. I shared this sentiment with NHL COO John Collins, and while he agreed there is merit on both sides of the debate, he feels both events will have a way to make themselves special in their own way. Listen, I want fans in my country to enjoy outdoor NHL hockey as well. But my solution would be to have a Canadian team in the Winter Classic every four to five years. NBC may not like it, but the selling point to the TV network in my opinion is that you're preserving the uniqueness of one outdoor game a year by doing so. I'm working the Heritage Classic in Calgary next month, so it may very well be that at the end of the event I will have had a change of heart after witnessing it, but right now I think the league made a bad call in staging two of these. Not the least of which is that I’m worried for the health of NHL ice guru Dan Craig!

fbullock: Happy New Year Mr. LeBrun and the fine folks of the ESPN Rant board,

There are several subjects I would love to tee off on for my first rant of 2011, Jacques Lemaire getting more NJ love, Roloson to TB "Did Stevie Y. get the goalie he wanted or the goalie he didn't want others to get?", the price Mr. Burke is really asking for Versteeg or the fact the Caps officially found a shrink that healed those mental wounds. Instead, I will go with the masses and point out my top 3 rants for the WC. Let’s lock and load and see what falls out of the tree.

1. You have to stop play in the third period. I know we have all been told that the players didn't mind and how much they enjoyed playing outside, but I bet if you took an honest poll, some of those players would probably want to play without helmets, I mean we are talking about a league who said they are concerned about player safety, remember the concussion debate. Players play with passion, fans watch because they love the game and the sport is upheld with Integrity and I feel the NHL brass skipped out on their part of that equation.

2. The game was moved to 8 p.m. and from what I see still grabbed 4.6M viewers in the 18 to 49 range. The NHL should take a hard look at this with the upcoming TV contract, the regular season (Price $), the playoffs (Price $$), the WC ($$$) and the finals ($$$$).

3. WC came close to Mother Nature getting on the scoreboard. Come Feb. 20th the NHL better have a better plan.

My take: First of all, you take it to the bank that the WC is indeed a primary subject in the future TV talks that will take place over the next several months. But let's deal with your first point, which I totally agree with and mentioned in our wrap-up video at Heinz Field. I think the league should have delayed play when the rain came down at its hardest. I know the players told me after the game it wasn’t that bad, but it shouldn’t be up to them to make that assertion. We talked all week long about being prepared for the kind of weather delays you see at baseball games or golf events, and so I think the league could have delayed the game 5-10 minutes during the worst part of the rain shower. Still, it didn't overshadow what was once again a gigantic success as an event.

Meohfumado: Shootout is an abomination. A game is worth two points in regulation, but then goes to OT and is suddenly worth three points?

You want to keep the shootouts, fine, change the point system.

Three points for a regulation win. Two points for an OT/shootout win, and one point for an OT/shootout loss. Of course, that would make the standings look pretty silly with having to list teams "Wins, OT Wins, Losses, OT losses" ...but that's what you get with a shootout.

My take: Well, my friend, you found a receptive soul with that rant. I'm tired of the shootout. It's a gimmick. And for a long time, I've also pushed for a three-point regulation-time win. It's something that NHL GMs actually broached in February 2004 at their meeting in Henderson, Nev., the same historic meeting that produced many of the post-lockout changes including the removal of the red line for two-line passes, the crackdown on obstruction and yes, the shootout. Keep the faith, though, Red Wings GM Ken Holland has pushed for a revamp of the overtime period, which also calls for three-on-three hockey. That should, in theory, increase the chances of overtime ending with a goal and result in fewer shootouts. The GMs plan to chew on his idea once again at their March meetings. Having said that, Holland may lose in his bid because shootouts are down this season. Through Monday night, there have been 62 shootouts compared with a whopping 95 at the same point last season when the league set the record. GMs may feel an OT format change isn’t needed if it turns out last season's record number of shootouts was an aberration.

BlackhawksFan22: Why oh why did we let Andrew Ladd escape? He had obvious character for a young team on their way to the Cup last year. His leadership is evident by Atlanta naming him their team captain. His loss hurts a little more than others because we could use some of that character about now.

Shame we never found a replacement for Big Buff. The blue line sure could use a big body like him to give Keith/Seabrook a breather. Lord knows Boynton and Hjalmarsson are both lost right now.

My take: I spoke with a Blackhawks observer recently and he said as the Hawks entered the offseason readied for a massive dump of players, the one player he hoped wouldn't move was Ladd. Now we see why. The Hawks really miss his grit and size and now with an increased role in Atlanta, he's showing his hands, too. Imagine that Ladd missed the last two games of the Western Conference finals and the first three games of the Stanley Cup finals and the Hawks didn’t even miss a beat.

Used_Puck_Bag: Venting …

1. Go back to the old division/conferences... I don't care to "grow" the game at the expense of tradition. The divisions are jacked up anyway... Colorado in the Northwest? Maybe if you live in Florida... geez.

2. Bring back the old school sweaters... Philly, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto got it right, so why not other teams? Calgary's is horrid. Edmonton needs to make their third jersey their first. Buffalo... lose the pin stripe. L.A. needs their purple/yellow back so we can make fun of it again.

3. Lose the Thrashers and Panthers, and give K.C. their scouts and Winnipeg their Jets.

4. Goalies... your masks and pads look like Technicolor vomit. Again, consider "old school."

5. Loose a ref... two is too many and they crowd the ice.

6. How many more sticks are going to break at crucial moments before they bring back wooden ones? I wanna see a lumber revival.

7. Less games in the season... hockey in June is too much; 70-72 games a season is just as well.

8. Winter Classics in Canada... Montreal and Toronto with the puck drop by Bob and Doug McKenzie. An HBO TV series will follow Bob and Doug as they prepare for the game.

9. Mullets need to be mandatory for players.

10. Outlaw cheerleaders at games along with techno music. Swedish players will just have to get used to no techno.

11. Bill Clement needs to be front and center again on a national stage... he's the best announcer/host going.

My take: Bob and Doug McKenzie, Strange Brew! Get lost, eh! Great rant by the way. Nothing for me to add. Classic.

District 5ive: I've got one for you.... Jonas Hiller. Has anyone faced more shots than this guy? No. Does anyone have more wins than him? Barely -- only Howard with 20 compared to Hiller's 19. Top 5 in save percentage among starters (tied with Quick at .925). Respectable GAA with 2.54, considering the Duck's D is shaky at best. Basically, what I'm saying is that this guy is forced to stand on his head night in and night out and is the only constant that merits the Ducks fifth in the West. The Ducks game is offense. Defense is an afterthought. Jonas is left to fend for himself, and I think he is doing remarkably well. Definitely a top 10 tender in my book this year if I was building a team. He was the only guy to show up in a Swiss sweater (as expected) in last years Olympic tournament. And probably the best part about everything is his flat black bucket with a gold cage. Please give this guy his props.

My take: Hiller has indeed faced more shots, 1,159, than any goalie in the NHL. Cam Ward and Carey Price are the only other goalies over 1,000 as of Tuesday morning. Of course, the reason Hiller has faced more shots is because the Ducks' blue line has its issues, which was the expectation heading into the season. The Ducks are 30th in the league in shots allowed per game, averaging a whopping 34.6 per game. Hence Hiller's increased workload. And I agree, he's responded with an All-Star season. The Vezina? That's going to be tough competition. Right now, I think Tim Thomas and Ondrej Pavelec are 1-2. After that, I agree Hiller deserves to be in the mix along with Cam Ward, Carey Price, Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist. (Can’t put Marc-Andre Fleury in there because he decided to take the first six weeks of the season off.)

1. Roloson acquisition bad news for Smith

We're not sure that anything has really been settled in Tampa Bay with the acquisition of veteran netminder Dwayne Roloson this past weekend, but the move has a number of implications.

First, this is bad news for Mike Smith.

We must admit to having a soft spot for Smith, who was likable and wildly competitive when he arrived in Tampa from Dallas in the Brad Richards trade a couple of years ago. We thought he might emerge as a bona fide NHL starter, yet injury and inconsistency have combined to block that path. Smith has been injured of late, and Dan Ellis played pretty well in his place, having inherited the starting job by default. Minor leaguer Cedrick Desjardins got in a couple of starts and won both, but clearly GM Steve Yzerman did not like the looks of an Ellis-Desjardins or Ellis-Smith tandem moving forward, even though the Bolts continue to vie with Washington for the top spot in the Southeast Division and their goals-against average has improved in the past month or so.

With the acquisition of Roloson, look for Smith to be waived and sent to the minors, as Yzerman likely will want to avoid carrying three netminders.

Roloson remains a bit of a wild card.

Heck, even we were gushing over him a week or two ago, as he has delivered mostly superlative work playing in front of a ghastly New York Islanders team. But he is five seasons removed from his starring playoff role for the Edmonton Oilers when the eighth-seeded wonders came within a game of winning the 2006 Stanley Cup, dropping Game 7 in Raleigh to the Carolina Hurricanes. Roloson had been injured in Game 1 of that final, but his play down the stretch after coming over from Minnesota and through the first three rounds gave the Oilers their finest hockey moments since Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky et al.

This Bolts team is a lot better than any team he's played on since, but to assume Roloson automatically reprises his Cinderella role instead of pumpkin is a bit premature.

Finally, this move is bad news for Evgeni Nabokov, who is currently unemployed, and Tomas Vokoun of Florida, who will be an unrestricted free agent come July and on the market before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. The Lightning were the NHL team most likely to look for goaltending help. As of now, they hope they've found it.

2. Moving the Winter Classic

ESPN colleague E.J. Hradek brought up the topic during a podcast in Pittsburgh leading up to the Winter Classic that next year, Jan. 1 will fall on a Sunday. The NHL has rightfully been pleased with the niche it has carved out on the crowded Jan. 1 sports calendar the past four years. But there is also little appetite to go head-to-head with the NFL on a late-season Sunday. It's a dynamic that will present itself periodically, and sources tell that there is already preliminary discussion about moving the game to a New Year's Eve time slot or pushing it to Jan. 2.

We assume that a Saturday slot, perhaps early to midafternoon, might work, as it shouldn't push into NBC's New Year's Eve programming. That's assuming, of course, that NBC renews its contract with the NHL at the end of this season and that it doesn't rain cats and dogs wherever the game ends up being played, throwing the whole thing into flux again.

3. Incidental contact rule

Twice during the Winter Classic, goals were waved off because there was incidental contact between a player and a goalie preceding the puck crossing the line. This reignited (at least in our minds) an ongoing debate over how the game's rules are interpreted. If part of the NHL's goal is to make the game more appealing to a broader American audience, it might do well to simplify one of the most ridiculous rules in the book: the cop-out rule that allows referees to wave off a goal after such contact but not necessarily call a penalty.

First, the Pens were denied a tying goal when Mike Rupp skated/was directed through the Washington crease. Replays showed that Rupp and the puck arrived in front of netminder Semyon Varlamov at exactly the same time. Isn't that the idea of a screen? Yes, there was some contact, and it likely prohibited Varlamov from stopping the puck.

Later, Alex Ovechkin was denied a late goal after "embracing" Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury behind the Pens' net. Replays seemed to show Fleury putting more of a grab on Ovechkin than vice versa.

I didn't like either call. It should be a simple thing.

If Rupp prohibited Varlamov from playing the puck of his own volition, wave off the goal and send Rupp to the box. If he was pushed by a defenseman or didn't bother Varlamov, ring up a Penguins goal. Same goes for the Ovechkin goal.

Having this wishy-washy "no harm, no foul" option for the officials simply muddies waters that should be crystal-clear.

4. Splitting fans' loyalty

A final word for the time being on the future of the Winter Classic. Regardless of whether it's being played on Jan. 1 (but especially if that's the case moving forward), why clutter the schedule with other NHL games, especially those involving American teams? If the theory is to open as many U.S. eyes as possible to the spectacle, don't have eight other American-based teams in action, as was the case on Saturday. We're not suggesting that the moratorium on competition should extend to Canada, but why force fans in New Jersey or Boston or Buffalo to choose between supporting their own teams and watching the Classic? In fact, à la the Super Bowl, if we were the NHL (and we rarely pretend to be), we would be promoting Winter Classic parties around the U.S. If they want to make this a special day for hockey, make it special. Just a thought.

5. Pietrangelo's award-worthy season

It's a bit of a shame that the NHL regulations are what they are and emerging young St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo isn't eligible for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

Pietrangelo, who's just 20 years old, was the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft. He played in eight games the season after he was drafted and nine games last season before being sent back to junior in both seasons. In both cases, he did not play enough games to start the clock ticking on his entry-level contract, but his appearance in NHL games in back-to-back seasons were enough to preclude him from consideration in this year's Calder Trophy race. Too bad, because the 6-foot-3, 206-pound Pietrangelo certainly would warrant discussion given his level of play.

Although he missed a couple of games thanks to injury, Pietrangelo has 18 points in 35 games and has become a mainstay on the Blues' power play. He is a plus-4 and is one of the reasons the Blues have persevered through a spate of injuries to key personnel up front to stay in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference. As of Monday, the Blues were sixth in the Western Conference tied with Los Angeles and Colorado with 45 points having won five of their past six games.

Were he eligible, Pietrangelo's point total would be one off the pace among rookie defensemen, and his 20:20 average ice time per night is third in the league.

"He has been a solid player right from the beginning of the season and looks to have a tremendous future ahead of him," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told on Monday.

PITTSBURGH -- Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun grade the 2011 Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins:


Well, there was a lot of it, and it did play havoc with the timing of the event and quality of the on-ice product. That was bad no matter how you spin it. When the ratings come out, perhaps the fact the weather forced the game to an 8 p.m. ET start will turn out to be a silver lining, but there's no doubt the weather dominated the storyline of this fourth Winter Classic, and not in a positive way. But guess what? If you're going to play outside, stuff is going to happen. Grade: D-minus.

Ice surface

In Buffalo four years ago, you could hardly see the puck by the time Sidney Crosby ended the first Winter Classic in a shootout. The snow was covering the ice too quickly. Without the sophisticated technology now employed by the league, the ice was breaking up and it was a mess. On Saturday, most players said the ice was still in good shape despite the rain. But there was one thing that was obvious throughout the evening: the puck bouncing.

"I think when it started to come down pretty good there, you could see the puck started to bounce even a little bit more," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said.

Instead of two skilled teams matching talent for talent, this game was reduced to teams firing as many pucks as possible at the opposing net. Grade: C.

Prime-time setting

Sure, it was a hassle to move the game to a later start time, but the optics were pretty dramatic. With the lights at Heinz Field shining on the glistening ice, it made for a pretty dramatic vista.

"The scene was spectacular," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "Somebody in one of the clubs was telling me that as they approached the stadium and they saw the lights on, it was just a spectacular sight. They got chills down their spine." Grade: A.

Pregame festivities

Not sure anyone will match James Taylor singing the national anthem last year in Boston. And even though we had no idea who Jackie Evancho was, the young lady could sing. Nice touch to have both Canadian and U.S. anthems performed Saturday night (Steven Page, formerly of the Barenaked Ladies, provided a nice rendition of "O Canada"). The Canadian and U.S. flags formed by fans in the end zone were also pretty cool, and it was nice the fans didn't fling the cards away like they did at Wrigley Field. Grade: B.


You've got to hand it to the 68,111 souls who took in Winter Classic IV, they were troopers. It wasn't until late in the third period with the Caps up 3-1 when fans started heading for the exits. Not sure it was as raucous a crowd as the one for the Classic at Wrigley, but that may be a function of the acoustics at an NFL stadium as opposed to a Major League Baseball park. Grade: B-plus.


They showed the hockey world on the biggest stage of the regular season just how their tweaked game is looking. A better defensive team that was able to limit Crosby, the Caps looked more playoff-ready. Alex Ovechkin was held off the score sheet, but was noticeable in a strong two-way performance.

"A lot of people are making a lot of big things out of the [lack of] goals," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He's never once come to me and worried about his goal production. ... And he wants to do better. And you watch later on in the game, he was doing whatever it took to win as a team.

"I mean, last summer, he said he didn't care about numbers, what he cares about is winning," Boudreau added. "I truly believe that, and he'll be just as happy if he gets 45 goals or 40 goals and he wins something in April, May and June as if he got 70 goals and had any individual award. And that's what captains are all about. And he doesn't get enough credit for it, but he deserves [it]." Grade: A-minus.


Jordan Staal was impressive in his first game in eight months, although he seemed to tire out a bit near the end. Crosby was held off the score sheet for the second straight game. Evgeni Malkin had one of his better games and scored a beauty. Overall, the Pens didn't generate enough offensive opportunities. An off night for them. Grade: C.

Mario Lemieux

The Penguins owner thrilled fans at Friday's alumni game, returning to action for the first time since his retirement. Then, he stunned the assembled media when he agreed to talk after the game. To cap it off, he said what Crosby has done so far this season is more impressive than anything he ever did. Well done, Mario. Grade: A.

Best game comment

That's an easy one. Caps owner Ted Leonsis: "The highlight for me was two sections filled with Caps fans and Pens fans and they looked at each other and they started chanting 'Flyers suck.' It's like they bonded around something." Grade: B-plus.


The game was better than average despite weather conditions in the third period that affected the integrity of the game to an extent. But the event was once again a success. The buzz in Pittsburgh since we arrived Wednesday has been out of this world. Bar none, this is the event of the NHL's regular season. One day, Mother Nature will prevent the game from being played on Jan. 1, but that's a story for another day. Grade: A.

PITTSBURGH -- I thought the team that needed to win it more, Washington, got the victory, and it could turn coach Bruce Boudreau's season around.

The Winter Classic on Saturday was more about will than skill. Washington walked into a tough environment at Heinz Field against the hottest team in the NHL and found a way to come from behind and get two points with a 3-1 win.

I know a lot of people will talk about the ice conditions, but that's what I love about this game -- every outdoor game has been different so far. We've seen snow, we've seen rain, we've been in baseball fields and football fields. I think that's part of the attractiveness of the event.

I think too much will be made of the ice surface. You have two teams who have played on bad ice before in the NHL. It's the same for both teams, and Washington found a way to fight through it.

Tonight, Semyon Varlamov outplayed Marc-Andre Fleury in net. He made the big saves, moved well and didn't beat himself. He stopped the ones he was supposed to stop.

Moving forward, I think Washington, Pittsburgh and Philly are heads and tails above any other team in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh and Philly have been playing great, and after talking to Boudreau yesterday, he believes the Caps are coming out of their funk. This win tonight will certainly help that. I see these three teams battling it out come April.

Again, I thought it turned out to be an awesome event, even if the weatherman became the most important person of the weekend!

Burnside: Second-period thoughts

January, 1, 2011

Burnside: First-period thoughts

January, 1, 2011

Winter Classic chat replay

January, 1, 2011

Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun, Barry Melrose and guests chat live from Heinz Field as they watch the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins battle under the lights.

Winter Classic: Latest from Heinz Field

January, 1, 2011
Heinz Field ESPN.comThe rain had stopped at Heinz Field by 5 p.m. ET, but another shower is expected.

With the puck drop at the Winter Classic just under three hours away, conditions were improving at Heinz Field.

A league official told's Pierre LeBrun that the ice conditions are very good. Outside of a few showers around the 6:15 p.m. ET mark, the official said conditions are expected to be dry with dropping temperatures.

In a pregame interview on the NHL Network, league ice guru Dan Craig said a lot of water was removed Saturday morning and the ice was "toughening up" as the day went on.

Video: Superstitions, staches and football

January, 1, 2011

Players from the Penguins and Capitals debate the craziest superstitions, whether Sidney Crosby's mustache or Alex Ovechkin's clean shave is a better look and the best football players between them.

5 Things: Winter Classic preview

January, 1, 2011

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.

Scott Burnside reports from the Capitals morning skate on the decision to start Semyon Varlamov against the Penguins.

PITTSBURGH -- And now we finally see the great experiment begin.

Evgeni Malkin's shifting to wing alongside Jordan Staal on a potent second line was the buzz item of Penguins camp, but frustrating setbacks in Staal's recovery delayed, and delayed, and delayed that plan. Finally, after eight months without game action and four surgeries (three to his foot and the latest to his hand), Pittsburgh's dynamic, two-way center makes his return Saturday night on no less a stage than the Winter Classic.

"I feel ready to go," Staal told media after the morning skate at Consol Energy Center. "The coaches think the same thing. It's kind of funny how it kind of falls on me being ready for this game, but it's exciting and I'm happy to be back in the lineup."

The Penguins will tell you the timing is pure coincidence, but one has to think missing the Winter Classic would have been a brutal blow for a player who has had to overcome more than a few bumps in his long recovery.

"I guess there's more drama to it because of the Winter Classic, but we approached the decision as if this was any other game," insisted head coach Dan Bylsma. "If this was a game in Buffalo today, would he play? The answer to that is unequivocally yes. And so that's why for sure he's playing this game. But he's had a tough go of it. And he's had some tough injuries and he's had to battle through that, more emotionally than physically. It's been tough for him that way."

Staal had never faced this kind of adversity in his young career.

"It's been a lot of ups and downs," Staal said. "Almost three times I was ready to play and it got taken away from me. Now it's here and it doesn't even feel real yet. But I know as soon as I get out there on that ice, it'll sink in. It gives me chills now and I'm really excited about it."

Mother Nature lent a helping hand, pushing the game seven hours later Saturday because of rain, a change that Staal figures helped.

"I think it did a little bit," Staal said. "I don't think I really had taken any faceoffs, but I took a couple today and it felt great. It's just nice to get some video in and stuff like that. I feel more relaxed and prepared for the game. It definitely helped me a little bit that it starts at 8 p.m."

Now Staal has to find his legs over the next little while, and get the chemistry going with Malkin. The Russian star needs a kick in the pants and maybe this is just what he needs. Malkin is on pace for the lowest offensive output of his impressive career, and the tandem with Staal could be the tonic he needed.

Bylsma will be careful about how he uses Staal early on, though.

"He'll play on a line with Geno [Malkin] some parts of the game," Bylsma said. "He won't play the normal number of minutes. He was a 19-and-a-half-minute guy for us last year. So there are circumstances or times when he might not be on that line, but yes, he will be. On my lineup card, he's playing center, with Geno on the wing."

The Penguins lead the Eastern Conference, and got there without Staal in the lineup and with an inconsistent Malkin not being his old self on some nights. If the Staal/Malkin combo takes off, imagine what kind of support that would give top-line center Sidney Crosby in his sensational season.

Scary, that's what it is.

PITTSBURGH -- Why is it that it feels like a win Saturday night in the Winter Classic would mean so much more to the Washington Capitals?

People have begun to describe the Winter Classic, as an event, as the Super Bowl for the NHL. And Saturday night's game, for the Caps, might just be their early Stanley Cup.

Consider the road they've traveled over the past year. From their shocking first-round collapse to the Montreal Canadiens this past spring, to their well-documented swoon/crisis in December, to their recent turnaround, the Winter Classic is like a patient getting off his shrink's couch after his last session and seeing whether he's ready to cope.

What's made it all the more compelling, of course, is the constant documentation from HBO, which gave the hockey world a front-row seat to Washington's therapy sessions, juxtaposed to Pittsburgh's well-oiled machine.

"You throw the whole HBO microscope thing in there, I mean, those first few episodes were tough for us. It's true," veteran Caps winger Mike Knuble said Friday after practice at Heinz Field. "We had lost six or seven in a row, and they had won 12 in a row; the teams were night and day. But we weren't that far off. The bottom line is that we were still a good team but we were going through something. The last 10 days we've been better. We've tweaked a couple of things, and I think that's helped us.

"But you know there's extra people watching tomorrow night and you want to put on a good show. We want to have a great game."

The Caps have followed that dreadful eight-game winless streak by taking nine of a possible 10 points. They look good again. But that one measly point missing went to the rival Penguins in a thrilling Dec. 23 shootout loss. Yes, those damn Penguins.

Imagine for a moment the shrink telling the Caps, "You can beat the Penguins, you can beat the Penguins ... "

"It'll definitely be great to get a win tomorrow night," Caps forward Eric Fehr said. "Not only for the fact it's the Winter Classic; it's a team we're trying to catch in the standings. But with what it feels like the whole world watching, it'll be great to show them who's the better team."

Of course, it's not ever just about the Caps and Penguins. There's also the nuts of the rivalry, Alex Ovechkin versus Sidney Crosby. Always will be that way, no matter how much people might not like it.

And let's consider that little rivalry right now, going back to this past February, when Crosby's Team Canada routed Ovechkin's Russian squad in the Olympic quarterfinals and then capped it off with the OT winning goal in the gold-medal game, the biggest goal in Canadian hockey since Paul Henderson in 1972. Fast forward to the first half of this season, Crosby entering the Winter Classic 23 points ahead of Ovechkin in the scoring race. Yes, 23 bleeping points.

As such, consider Saturday night one of those marquee moments in which the great ones make their mark. And maybe this is a shot in the dark, but we see Ovechkin not wasting this opportunity to reaffirm his superstar status and using a giant performance as a springboard to a dynamite second half. We could be wrong, but we just feel Ovechkin has that grasp of the moment.

If he needs added motivation, he just needs to be told of Mario Lemieux's comments Friday morning, when he raised eyebrows in saying Crosby's season is more impressive than anything Super Mario himself ever did.

You don't think that will drive Ovechkin?

"Oh yeah, I'm sure it does, for sure," Knuble said. "Sidney, the last 18 months have been unbelievable for him. He's a great player and he's playing great right now."

The question is, why has Ovechkin not been up to his normal standards so far this season?

"The reasons, it's all about me," Ovechkin told reporters Friday. "I have a chance to score goals, I have to score it. If I didn't score it, people are going to say, 'OK, he's not scoring. He's not that good anymore.' And if I start scoring again like that, I'm going to make a point streak like 10 games, everything's going to be back and I'm not worried about it."

What we do know for sure is that once the Winter Classic is over, HBO's cameras finally will be gone. Ovechkin and his teammates will be able to breathe again.

"The fact that we're on national TV all the time definitely made it tougher," Fehr said of HBO's presence during the team's winless streak. "I think it made it tougher for the coaches to coach the way they wanted and for the players to get on each other if things aren't going well. It's stuff you can't necessarily do in front of cameras, and I think that made it tougher."

To a man, however, from GM George McPhee reiterating this sentiment to on Friday all the way down to the players, they feel the winless streak and the HBO spotlight will have just made them stronger in the long run. It's a bout of adversity they needed to forge a different identity come playoff time.

"After that first episode on HBO, it was a bit of a shock," Caps blueliner Mike Green said Friday. "We had never really been in that situation before. I think it looked a lot worse than it was. I think people have to admire and respect what we've gone through and how to pull through it. It shows the character we have in this dressing room. Any time you're faced with adversity, you build your character. So here we are."

Here they are indeed. Drop the puck, and let's see who they really are.

PITTSBURGH -- For a team that has won 17 of its past 20 games and owned the most points of any team in the NHL as of Friday morning, you would think everything would be sunshine and light in the world of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yet the team's success in the standings, coupled with the extraordinary season being turned in by captain Sidney Crosby, has allowed one struggling star to exist in the shadows and away from what otherwise might be more critical questioning.

Evgeni Malkin, former NHL scoring champ, former playoff MVP, is so far enduring his least productive NHL season. Pointless in his past three games, without a goal in five straight, Malkin has gone pointless in 15 games this season, almost half of the games he's played.

Through 34 games this season, Malkin has produced just 32 points, on pace for 72 points, his lowest total since entering the league in 2006.

At this same point of the season two years ago, Malkin already had 55 points. He finished with 113 points to win the Art Ross Trophy for the first time, and the Penguins went on to win their first Stanley Cup championship since 1992.

There are mitigating issues with Malkin's decline in production, to be sure. He missed four straight games with a knee injury and seemed to have been hampered with the injury even before he left the lineup earlier in December.

[+] EnlargeEvgeni Malkin
Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty ImagesEvgeni Malkin on his recent play: "I'm not mad, you know. I just keep doing my job, keep working and working every game."

"It's a little bit tough. I [had an] injury and I play with injury a little bit," Malkin said Friday after the Penguins' practice at Heinz Field in advance of Saturday's Winter Classic. "It's a big moment this year for me, but now I feel better and last game I think I had five scoring chances but [didn't] score. But maybe next game [I'll] have a little bit of luck, you know? I'm not mad, you know. I just keep doing my job, keep working and working every game."

Still, after a disappointing end to the playoffs this past spring, when Malkin produced just one goal and three points in a seven-game second-round loss to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, this season's numbers are vexing.

Both Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero said they have noticed a difference in Malkin's performance since his return from injury. Malkin scored in three straight games upon his Dec. 14 return and posted a five-point night against Phoenix on Dec. 20. Since then, he's had zero goals and just two assists in five games.

"I think this has been his best probably four or five games away from the puck. I think he's working very hard. He's working hard to find his way," Bylsma said Friday. "He's playing the game the right way. And the disappointing part is, he's created for himself and his line, five or six goal-scoring opportunities in the last few games, and hasn't reaped the rewards."

Shero told on Friday that he has no issues with Malkin's game, especially given that his injury cut into his practice time before he went out of the lineup and had an effect on his sharpness.

"Since he's come back, he's had a lot of jump," Shero said. "To me, he's had that jump that is so important for him."

For long stretches of time, Malkin has proved himself to be among the top four or five players in the world. But he also has been prone to stretches of not-so-stellar play, prompting questions about his maturity.

One of the interesting bits from HBO's "24/7" shows chronicling the Penguins and Capitals leading up to the Winter Classic was a comment made by Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, who instructed his team to try to goad Malkin into taking retaliatory penalties. Boudreau turned out to be prescient in a game between the two rivals Dec. 23, in which Malkin was whistled for a retaliatory interference penalty in the first period of the Penguins' shootout victory.

Malkin said he hadn't seen the segment, but Bylsma said his big center likely will see it at some point.

"We've talked about that being something that teams have tried to do and then our response to that as well," Bylsma said. "I think it's a compliment that they think that's what they have to do to get you off your game. It's something we have to be aware of, and in Geno's case, [he] has to be get better about the response."

If your Penguins glass is half-full, you point to the fact that the team's success has come despite Malkin's slow start and the absence of center Jordan Staal, who has yet to play this season. Staal could return to the lineup as early as Saturday and likely will play with Malkin.

"I'm optimistic," Shero said. "[Malkin] has got more to give, which is great."

Marc-Andre FleuryJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesMarc-Andre Fleury said: "The ice was a little maybe softer than usually but it was fun though."

PITTSBURGH -- For the first time, Mother Nature has balked at the NHL's annual excursion onto her turf.

Faced with the threat of sustained rain through the morning and into the afternoon Saturday -- through the heart of the scheduled time of the Winter Classic game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals -- the NHL made the preemptive move to back up the start time to 8 p.m. ET.

There are no guarantees, of course, that the move announced late Friday afternoon by the league will pay off, but there's every possibility it could be a blessing in disguise.

The troubling storm front is expected to move through the area by early evening, bringing with it cooler, drier air that should help ice conditions.

A number of players said after practice Friday that the ice seemed a bit soft.

"Well, ice was not that good but we still have 24 hours," Washington captain Alex Ovechkin said after the two teams worked out at Heinz Field for the first time.

Both teams also got a chance to skate with their families after.

"You know, it was humid, more water, so the ice was a little maybe softer than usually but it was fun, though, a good time," Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury said.

The jovial netminder has faced the elements before, having to snare pucks through the snow that fell, sometimes heavily, during the first Winter Classic, in Buffalo in 2008.

Is he worried about any rain that might still be in the area?

"I don't know. It depends on how hard it rains, how big it is. If it's windy or not. So I guess they're sort of the factors that come into play. But there's not much else I can do. Basically just put my helmet on and go play," Fleury said.

It is interesting that players whose daily lives are so rooted in structure -- eat at this time, stretch at this time, get equipment on at this time -- seemed so nonplussed with the fluidity surrounding the Winter Classic's start time and the vagaries of the weather.

"We're just happy to be part of it and we want to play. If they can't maintain the ice with having a lot of rain and we can't play, there's nothing we can do," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said.

"Whether it's rain or snow, whatever it is -- individually, personally, I'll play in anything," he said.

Pittsburgh defenseman Alex Goligoski was looking forward to the possibility that this might become the first Winter Classic played in prime time.

"I think that'd be really cool to play at night under the lights. That'd definitely be really cool," he said.

Ovechkin said he was looking forward to a later start to the game because it more closely mirrored the traditional game day routine.

"For me, it's better if it's gong to be evening because it's like we have a game almost every time at 7 o'clock. So if it's going to be at 8 o'clock, it's going to be OK because you can sleep. You can eat normal food, like, you know, steaks, spaghetti, and just take a nap before the game," Ovechkin said.

"If it's going to be at 8, you can celebrate New Year's, too," he added.

Good point.

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau echoed the sentiments of many from both teams: The time of the game doesn't matter; it's the game itself.

"I mean, as far as us, as players and coaches, I don't care if they play at midnight. Let's get it going."