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Blackhawks, Capitals enter Classic at top of games

by Brian Compton

WASHINGTON -- Two of the hottest teams in the NHL will play out in the cold Thursday.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who are 7-2-1 in their past 10 games to seize possession of first place in the Central Division, are set to face the Washington Capitals in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

Washington is 6-1-3 in its past 10 games and has moved into third place in the Metropolitan Division. This will be the Capitals' second Winter Classic (they played the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field in 2011).

"The message is, enjoy this experience," Washington coach Barry Trotz said after the Capitals practiced on the outdoor rink Wednesday. "Let's face it, this is pretty unique. It's something that you don't always get to do. You want to share it with your family. One of the things that I've tried to do with our group is just make sure [to] be pros about it."

The Capitals (18-11-7) have managed to find ways to collect points despite playing six of their past seven games on the road. They had a few hours to relax and were able to skate with their families after practice Wednesday, but captain Alex Ovechkin expects a return to the businesslike mentality when everyone arrives at the stadium on New Year's Day.

"It's going to be a fun time," said Ovechkin, who leads Washington with 17 goals in 36 games. "I'm pretty sure everybody is going to be excited, especially when it's going to be loud and the fans are going to be out there. Right now, it's all about fun … families, kids, wives, girlfriends, so it's always good.

"Tomorrow's going to be a new year and it's going to be a new day. It's going to be a huge two points for us. Mentally, it's going to be a very important game for us because we're going to play one of the best teams in the League. It's going to be a huge game for us. "

Chicago (25-10-2) has won back-to-back games and was 10-2-1 in December. But as well as the Blackhawks have been playing, they know Thursday presents a challenge. Not only must they brave whatever elements they'll face playing outdoors, but they'll encounter a team that has been playing better of late and one they play twice a season. Washington won 3-2 at Chicago on Nov. 7.

"Everyone's probably seen all those episodes on TV, they've probably seen the buildup towards this game," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said, referring to the "Road to the Winter Classic" on EPIX. "They're playing well and so are we. I think we've had a great month since that road trip back in November. We're looking forward to this. I think anytime you play an Eastern Conference team, especially if they're playing well, it's always going to be tough. You never really know what you're going to get because you don't see those teams too often. But for the most part, you focus on what you've been doing well, and hopefully it's enough. I think we'll be ready to play the same way we've been playing and get a little bit more energy considering the situation."

The Blackhawks will be playing their third outdoor game Thursday; they lost to the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field at the 2009 NHL Winter Classic and defeated the Penguins at Soldier Field last March in an NHL Stadium Series game.

"It's exciting," Chicago right wing Patrick Kane said. "You see this game on the schedule, it's definitely one of the first games circled, especially at this time of year. It's kind of almost the midway point of the season and it's something you can look forward to, especially when you get out there. It almost feels like a playoff atmosphere with it obviously being the Winter Classic and being outside. There's a lot of media and it's such a big event. We enjoy it."

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said, "We're definitely a fortunate organization and team to get a chance to play in more than one outdoor game. The setting, the opportunity, the thrill, and being in that fresh-air environment is second to none. Last year at Soldier Field, the snow, I don't know how many inches we got during the game, that was one you'll never forget. The first one at Wrigley was special as well.

"This is a beautiful venue here. I think everybody's looking forward to it tomorrow. It's a privilege, an honor; you have to take advantage of it because it's very special."

Quenneville said he expects a very competitive game, given the improved play of each team over the past month. Washington has done a solid job of adapting to Trotz's system in recent weeks and has become more committed to playing responsibly in its own end of the ice.

"We saw them earlier and I think both teams were probably OK at that stage," Quenneville said. "I think in the last month or so, both teams have won a lot of key games and it seems like their games are as good as they've been at any point all year long. It's a dangerous game. When you're playing [Trotz's] team, they play hard [and] they play the right way. They try not to give up much and that's the way their team is progressing. Ourselves, we hope to push it a little bit and try to score. It'll be a good contest and I'm sure everybody's excited about it."

But when the puck drops, Trotz is hopeful his players will remain focused on the task at hand.

"This is such a spectacular event, but the bottom line for the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks are these are big points in the standings," Trotz said. "I know we can't afford to give up any points to anybody."


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