December 30, 2010
Players who grew up in the type of cold climates that gave birth to vast sheets of slick ice inevitably spent time playing the game on some less-than-perfect ice conditions.
Well, it appears our NHL stars may have to do the same this Saturday in Pittsburgh, given that the forecast shows the weather might look something like it did during the Winter Classic's Crosby/Ovechkin-in-a-rainstorm-on-Heinz-Field ad (which has to go down as one of the all-time greatest jinxes). The Washington Post reported this morning that the forecast "indicates between a quarter and half inch of rain is likely to fall in Pittsburgh during the six hours spanning the period prior to game time and the game itself."
When you play on an outdoor rink, bumps and ruts, snow and sleet and freezing wind are the norm, so you learn to adjust. On the days with bad ice, you adopt a slightly different playing style. (I LOVE that NHLers may have to do this for a real contest, for real points.)
You have to keep it as simple as humanly possible. And that's why bad weather and sloppy ice favors the Pittsburgh Penguins in Saturday's NHL Winter Classic.
On a regular NHL ice surface, the chance of something negatively affecting a pass is minimal. Sometimes a bump makes it go over your teammates stick or a snow pile-up slows the pass down at the end of a period. But most of the time, it's like putting on the greens at Augusta - the magic is in the execution.
At Heinz Field, there will be more bumps and snow piles and ruts. A team that can play the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) methods employed in tight playoff games - shoot as the first option, dump pucks in deep, and get to the net - have the edge. Try to bang in the ugly rebound goal, set up some screens, and try to tip-in pucks.
You switch to playing percentages, carrying the puck north-south and limiting east-west play (not that you do that consciously in crappy-ice-pond-hockey, but you definitely dangle less).
Pittsburgh is a well-coached team. The players know their roles and stick to them as well as any team in the league.
The Washington Capitals, while adding more grit in recent years, still relies largely on offense that comes from being so ridiculously talented sometimes it makes my eyeballs hurt. And also makes my Jealousy Gland explode.
Obviously then, bad conditions should favor a Pittsburgh team that has proven it can play effective KISS hockey, and can put points on the board without needing the "tac-and-toe" portion of the equation that Washington so frequently adds up.
In short, the Pens should be praying for rain.
If the conditions for this year's Winter Classic are as poor as they're predicted -- weather in the 50's and a bajillion percent chance of drops of water descending from the heavens -- the ice will deteriorate. Even if they do move it to a night game, I can't see the sheet being anywhere near flawless (if they do keep it flat, first star of the game should undeniably be the ice crew).
Bad ice won't be a crisis, it will just changes the style of game play. And, if the Winter Classic is partially meant to honor the game's roots -- that being outdoor hockey -- than we can't complain when guys have to play like the game is outdoors.
Most of us have been there before. It's not impossible to score nice goals. But doing the simple things well helps, and that can only favor Pittsburgh.