CHEVY CHASE, Md. -- A few of the Washington Capitals decided to get creative with the eye black when the team practiced outside Wednesday at Chevy Chase Club in preparation for the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
While other players went with a traditional thin line under each eye, John Carlson and Matt Hendricks covered much of their cheeks. Alex Ovechkin got even more, well, creative -- he gave himself an eye-black unibrow and mustache.
"Today's the day to experiment with that stuff,"Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We had a couple of Ultimate Warriors out there. I have no idea what [Ovechkin] was doing. He was different, anyway."
The Capitals have typically staged an outdoor practice at Chevy Chase Club each season for a select group of fans, but this skate was a little different. A 1 p.m. start time -- previous practices here have been in the evening to avoid the sun, which sets at one end of the rink -- was a clear nod to getting the Capitals ready for an afternoon game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday at Heinz Field.
It was also more of a structured practice. Previous trips to Chevy Chase Club have often been lighthearted, but this one featured real drills and even some light body work in the corners. It even ended with plenty of hard skating after a team shootout competition.
"I don't know if it means anything or it means a lot,"Boudreau said. "That's why I wanted to skate them a little bit to see if the wind affects you. It is amazing going one way -- even if it's two miles per hour, it affects you."
Added Ovechkin: "Yeah, it is much different. We have fun last couple of years, but right now we have to have a real practice. It is pretty different feelings. It is still fun, but it is also practice. We are talking about practice right now."
A few of Washington's injured players made sure to be on the ice today with the Winter Classic looming. Boudreau said rookie centers Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault appear ready to play against the Penguins, and that played a role in the club sending forwards Andrew Gordon and Keith Aucoin to Hershey of the American Hockey League.
Defenseman Tom Poti also practiced, but Boudreau did not commit to a place in the lineup for him. This outdoor matinee certainly provided the team a bit of a sneak peek at what to expect this weekend.
"It was a hard practice -- it wasn't all about scrimmaging or playing games,"defenseman Mike Green said. "We got a good skate in. It was a good experience for us. I think we've been looking forward to this all year since they announced it. It couldn't come quick enough, but now here we are and we're looking forward to playing in the game on Saturday. Everybody is excited."
The Capitals will practice at their normal rink, Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va., on Thursday morning before taking a flight to Pittsburgh. The mood will be substantially different then it might have been a couple of weeks ago.
Washington has won four of its past five contests since an eight-game losing streak knocked them from the top of the NHL standings and even down to third place in the Southeast Division. A 3-0 victory against the Montreal Canadiens has the Capitals back in second place in the East and atop their division, though Tampa Bay could reclaim the lead between now and the Winter Classic.
A more defensive-minded philosophy is starting to take hold in Washington as the Capitals have yielded 12 goals in their past seven games, and the win against Montreal was one of the team's most complete efforts of the season.
"It feels good to finally be on track a little bit,"Carlson said. "We know we have a long way ahead for ourselves, though. We dug ourselves a pretty deep hole, but we have to be happy with how we're playing."
Added Boudreau: "I like the way we're playing, but Pittsburgh is always a different animal. They can score at the drop of a hat and we're in there backyard. It is going to be a difficult game."