PITTSBURGH – No one who loves hockey, no one who loves sports, no one who simply likes a good show, wants the weather to foul up the Winter Classic.
The NHL has pushed back the start time of Saturday’s outdoor game from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., thanks to forecasts of warm temperatures and steady rain in the afternoon, followed by cooler and drier air in the evening. But it’s not the worst-case scenario – not yet, anyway. And if the conditions are right at night, it might even work out for the best.
Now the NHL is scheduled to have Sidney Crosby(notes) vs. Alex Ovechkin(notes), the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Washington Capitals, the top marketing matchup the game has to offer, on the temporary rink at 65,000-seat Heinz Field, on American television at prime time against only one or two college football bowl games instead of four.
“I don’t see anything wrong with playing underneath the lights here,” Crosby said. “I think that would be pretty nice.”
This event can’t be all about the hype – the Sid-and-Ovi magazine spreads, the TV commercials, the HBO reality series. It has to be about the reason for the hype – the game itself.
It’s only one of 82 games for each team, one of 1,230 games for the NHL. But it’s important, the Penguins leading the league with 53 points entering Friday night’s action, the Capitals only four points behind. It’s the two biggest stars on the biggest stage, at least in terms of seats and mid-season TV exposure. And the way those stars have played this season – Crosby surging, Ovechkin struggling – it has compelling storylines.
“In the end, it’s about two points, but let’s not make a mistake,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We’re all people that want the game of hockey to grow, and this is a big deal. 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.
“If we can help build hockey in the U.S. and in Canada and all over the world by putting on a great show for these people, it’s more than two points. It’s worth a lot more.”
For Crosby, who scored the shootout winner for the Penguins in the 2008 Winter Classic, who scored the overtime winner for Team Canada in the 2010 Winter Games, this is yet another occasion to which to rise.
It’s a unique opportunity to perform in front of his Pittsburgh fans and to show casual fans across North America how he has risen to a new level, after winning the Stanley Cup, the Olympic gold medal and the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player already at age 23. He leads the NHL in scoring with 65 points, nine ahead of anyone else. He’s on pace for 136 points, which would be the most since the Penguins’ Mario Lemieux put up 161 and Jaromir Jagr(notes) put up 149 in 1995-96, despite a salary cap, parity and improved defensive play.
“I think it’s much tougher now to dominate the way the league is set up,” Lemieux said. “For him to go out there and do the things he does every night, every shift, is incredible. It’s unbelievable his strength, his skating ability. His shooting ability has gotten better the last couple years. What he’s doing now is much more impressive than what I did years ago.”
For Ovechkin, this is a chance to remind everyone of how incredible he can be. He has 42 points, still tied for sixth in the NHL entering Friday night’s action, but behind his usual pace. He had only two goals in 19 games during a recent stretch that included an eight-game Capitals losing streak.
But he has scored in each of his past two games (one an empty-netter), and a dominant performance here not only could steal the spotlight, but springboard him into the season’s second half. This is still the same player who has won the Hart Trophy twice.
“I have a chance to score goals, I have to score it,” Ovechkin said. “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.”
For the NHL, this is an opportunity to showcase further this era’s version of Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, to sell its sport the way the NBA once sold basketball with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
“You’ve got to have that,” said Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey, who played with both Gretzky and Lemieux. “Sports has to have that. You have to have two guys that fuel themselves to want to be better than the other guy. These guys are the real deal. There are some guys unfortunately that, uh …”
“I’m usually not the guy that says this kind of stuff, but there are some guys in the league that make money they don’t deserve,” Coffey continued. “Those guys do [deserve it]. They play every single night. They want to drive [the game]. They want to impress the town they play in. They want to put goals up, put assists up. They want to entertain every single night.”
And now they’re scheduled to entertain on a special night, under the bright lights, as long as the rain doesn’t ruin it.
- Mario Lemieux