-- It could be pretty easy for the Pittsburgh Penguins
to lose sight of the fact they have to play a meaningful hockey game against the Washington Capitals
on New Year's Day.
There are enough distractions leading up to the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic to knock the most focused of professional athletes off their games. Consider all that happened at Heinz Field on Friday that resembles nothing of your usual day before a regular-season game:
After the players took to a sheet of ice on a football field while wearing their Winter Classic jerseys, forward Pascal Dupuis
donned a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet for a portion of a practice held in front of several thousand fans.
Before the practice, an alumni game between the Caps and Pens that featured legend Mario Lemieux
took place in front of 10,000 fans.
After the practice, the Pens held an hour-long family skate before retiring to the Steelers' locker room to face the media.
"All the extra things make it feel like it's more than a regular-season game for sure," Pens forward Chris Kunitz
But when 8 p.m. Saturday night rolls around, the two points on the line are just as valuable as any other game. After the Pens earned a 3-2 shootout win at Verizon Center on Dec. 23, the Caps are sure to bring even more intensity to an already-intense rivalry.
"As soon as that puck's dropped, we know they're a dangerous team," Kunitz said. "We know how we have to be successful and things we need to do to win games against them. We had a tough game against them last time, took a lot of penalties. That's something we can't do. They're skill and high offensive power. We might have gotten away with one last game."
The Pens (25-11-3) sit atop the NHL with 53 points and have earned at least a point in five of their last six (4-1-1). They're coming off a 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Islanders
on Wednesday that saw Sidney Crosby
's 25-game points streak come to an end, but that's just a hiccup in what's been an outstanding season for the Pens.
"I think we're playing well," said rookie defenseman Ben Lovejoy
, who has seen the swelling in his left cheek dissipate somewhat. "I think we've found how we need to play to be successful. Everybody knows their job and we've been doing it well. Obviously we didn't get the result we wanted in New York, but I think we've been playing well and we'll continue to do that in the second half."
The return of center Jordan Staal
could provide a major boost to a team that doesn't even need it. Staal has yet to play a game this season after complications from offseason surgery on his foot and a broken hand he suffered while just days away from returning from the foot problem have kept him sidelined.
Coach Dan Bylsma
said Staal would be a game-time decision.
"Considering the fact that it's his first game coming up and hasn't had a training camp and has gone through the injuries, it's more difficult versus if he'd been out at training camp and played 20 games and missed 15," Bylsma said. "So it's tough to figure out where to put a guy back in who hasn't had the training camp and hasn't played.
"And the confidence level with the injuries he's had and the one that he's coming off of are issues going in."
Staal turned out to be the loser in the Pens' end-of-the-month shootout contest at Heinz Field, which means he'll have to spend all of January growing a moustache. Besides that, teammates said Staal looked like he was ready to come back.
"He looks good. He always looks good," said Craig Adams
, who had his two young children playing in his locker after practice. "Whenever he's ready to come back, we'll be glad to have him.
"We know how we have to be successful and things we need to do to win games against them. We had a tough game against them last time, took a lot of penalties. That's something we can't do. They're skill and high offensive power. We might have gotten away with one last game."
-- Chris Kunitz
"He looked better than any of us there," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
It's a little strange to say a player with 32 points in 34 games is struggling, but that's the case with center Evgeni Malkin
. He has no points in his last three games and just a pair of assists in his last five.
Still, Malkin feels he's getting close to where he needs to be.
"I'm not perfect. I have to play my game," Malkin said. "I'm not bad. Maybe I play OK. I get better every game. I had lots of scoring chances, but right now I'm not scoring the last few games. I just have to keep going next game."
Bylsma agrees with that assessment.
"I think this has been his best probably four or five games away from the puck," Bylsma said. "I think he's working very hard. He's working hard to find his way. 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 game, the last few games, and hasn't reaped the rewards."
Perhaps seeing the team the Pens hate the most will be the recipe for Malkin to get out his mini-slump. The Pens aren't shy about talking about their disdain for the Caps, something that developed during their seven-game, second-round series in 2009 that the Pens won.
"If you go back to the 2009 playoff, it's the same core and the same hatred," forward Max Talbot said.
Whether it's a signature event like the Winter Classic or a ho-hum matchup in February, that hate is the one thing that will never change for the Penguins.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo