Each Wednesday through the regular season, Kevin Weekes usually offers his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. This week is special, though. Weekes is in Washington covering the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic for NHL Network, so his blog is focused on the game Thursday between the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals at Nationals Park.
WASHINGTON -- The venue looks great, the rink is ready, the hype machine is going in full gear, and the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks finally get to see it all for themselves Wednesday when they take the ice for practice day at Nationals Park.
The stage is just about set for the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Thursday. The beauty of it is each team has been playing well heading into the big game.
The Capitals lost in overtime against the New York Islanders on Monday, but they rallied from a 3-0 deficit to pick up a point. They are 8-1-3 since Dec. 4.
The Blackhawks did the opposite of the Capitals on Monday, winning 5-4 in a shootout against the Nashville Predators after falling into a 3-0 hole. They are 18-4-1 since a 3-2 loss to Washington on Nov. 7.
Here is my breakdown on what's been working, what advantages each team can have in the NHL Winter Classic, and what might be worrisome, as well as my three things to watch:
Pluses: The main plus for the Blackhawks is just how well they've played since their "Circus Trip."
By their standards they didn't get off to the best of starts this season, but once the "Circus Trip" came, they hit their stride, and in hitting their stride they are playing their game again. That's obviously a big plus coming in to the NHL Winter Classic.
In general they are playing like who they are, just playing like the Blackhawks. When you're a two-time Stanley Cup championship team and a top-two or top-three team in the NHL over the past few years and you're still playing at the top of your game in the middle of the season that says a lot. I'm very impressed by how they are playing since that "Circus Trip."
Also a plus is the fact that they have a lot of big-game experience. These guys just play in big games all the time, and I'm not just talking about outdoor game experience. They have been in a lot of big-game situations and they relish them, they crave them. And they don't just crave it so they can have a big-game situation, they crave it for the opportunity to deliver when they get it. That's a whole different kettle of fish.
It's one thing to say they would love to be in this situation, it's another thing to say that they can't wait to deliver in this situation. They love to deliver and they continue to deliver. That's my big thing with this group.
So whether it's a Stadium Series game last season or a Winter Classic game this season, they just love this stage and love delivering on this stage. They always rise to the occasion. That's very impressive and that's a big plus.
They love to deliver in the big moment. That's a part of who they are.
Minuses: I would say the only potential minus for Chicago could be the conditions. For whatever reason, if the conditions are not excellent to pretty good, it could favor Washington because I believe the Capitals overall have depth players who are better suited at playing a heavy game.
Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Tom Wilson -- all of those guys can get physical, get grindy, and still deliver points. If the conditions aren't ideal, the ice tilts in Washington's direction because of that heavy game they play, and have been playing for the past month. Chicago wants to play a speed game, but it needs ideal conditions to play that way.
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Pluses: The Capitals are playing the most consistent brand of hockey that we've seen so far from them under Barry Trotz. That's a huge plus for them.
They're playing a heavier game, a heavier style of hockey than we have seen from them. That comes back to those depth players I just wrote about.
Their overall team is not as perimeter as it used to be.
As one Eastern Conference player told me, "Playing them this month and playing them in November and October, we felt like we played two different teams." That to me says a lot.
This is clearly the most consistent they have been. This is the style Trotz wants them to play. It has been impressive to watch. You are seeing the buy-in factor from the Capitals right now.
Minuses: The challenge is Brooks Orpik's health. Is he going to play? If he doesn't play that could be a big minus, a big negative.
Why? Well, Orpik is a guy who has played in so many situations, so many big games, and he brings an edge that would allow him to jam up some of the Blackhawks' star players. Players know that you have to have your head up when you're playing against Orpik.
If he can't go he would be a big loss because he can have a big impact on a game. That's a worry for me if he can't go.
The only other concern is the fact that they're hosting this game. Historically the home team has not fared well in the Winter Classic, winning one of the first six games. It makes you wonder about the pressure on the home team.
Are the Capitals going to be burdened by that pressure?
Are they going to try to do too much?
Are they going to force plays that aren't there?
Are they going to be too aggressive?
Are they going to try to be a little too showy?
Are they going to try to be entertainers first or play like hockey players?
I'm not saying the answer to any of these questions will be yes, but I'm interested in seeing how they handle themselves as far as that is concerned.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
Goalie - WSH
GAA: 2.28 | SVP: .920
1. The goalie matchup
Overall, each goalie, Braden Holtby for the Capitals and Corey Crawford for the Blackhawks, has played well this season. Holtby is on a hot streak now, and Crawford has struggled a bit since returning from his injury, but he's still finding his way back and playing fairly well.
2. Cat-and-mouse game on special teams
The Blackhawks have the best penalty kill in the NHL, and it's dangerous offensively too because a lot of their star players play in shorthanded situations. Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad all get time on the PK, so as great as Washington's power play can be, you have players on the Blackhawks PK who are elite scorers and think the game as well offensively as Washington's power-play guys. That becomes an intriguing matchup to watch.
3. Big guys playing big
If Tom Wilson has an impact on the game for the Capitals, Bryan Bickell better have an impact on the game for the Blackhawks. Andrew Shaw can and he usually does, because he always comes to play, but he's an undersized guy compared to Bickell and Wilson. If I'm Joel Quenneville or Jonathan Toews, I'm going to pull Bickell aside and let him know, "Big man, we need you." I don't doubt Wilson is going to bring that big-man impact.