As soon as the Pittsburgh Penguins headed off the ice following a 2-1 shootout loss Wednesday night on Long Island their attention turned to the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, arguably the most hyped regular season game in League history for a myriad of logical reasons.
The Washington Capitals had an extra 24 hours to think about the outdoor event because they played their last game prior to the Classic on Tuesday night and whitewashed the Canadiens, 3-0. Washington revved up for the game by practicing outdoors in Chevy Chase, Md. on Wednesday.
So here we are two days before we all ring in 2011 with a pair of teams that seriously do not like each other -- which, of course, adds extra spice to an event that is already quite tasty.
But what about the matchup? What about the Xs and Os? What about the strategies?
Let's dive right in:
His pointless night at Nassau Coliseum notwithstanding, it's fair to say that right now Sidney Crosby
is the best player in the NHL. Even the most devoted Capitals' fan has to agree with that statement.
Crosby just finished a 25-game point streak in which he had 26 goals and 24 assists. The most respected media members are saying he's silenced the debate on who is the best, that he's lapped the field.
That's not to say Ovechkin can't re-ignite the debate. Wouldn't it be just fitting if that happened here at Heinz Field?
Ovechkin and Crosby are made for the big stage, a made-for-TV rivalry, and in the regular season it doesn't get bigger and more publicized than the Winter Classic. Crosby is on a tear, but Ovechkin has picked up his pace with 6 points in the last six games, including 3 points in the last two.
Both players have admitted in the past that they sense a little more is at stake when they face off against one another. Sure, there are two points, but bragging rights matter in this rivalry and they most definitely play for them.
Crosby has 13 goals and 22 assists for 35 points in 20 career regular-season games against Washington. Ovechkin has 17 goals and 14 assists for 31 points in 21 career regular-season games against the Penguins.
And, that's not even beginning to bring into context their epic playoff series from 2009, when they had matching hat tricks in Game 2.
You know about Crosby and Ovechkin, but there's way more to each team than just the captains.Evgeni Malkin
doesn't have a point in the last three games, but he had 7 over his previous three, proving how dangerous he can be. Malkin centers his own line between Maxime Talbot and Matt Cooke
, but when coach Dan Bylsma feels the urge he puts Malkin with Crosby to create a power line that is almost impossible to check.
Nicklas Backstrom hasn't had the type of production the Capitals need from him, but that sort of goes in line with Ovechkin's highs and lows, and how Washington as a whole has been struggling to score goals. Backstrom hasn't scored a goal since Dec. 1, a span of 13 games.
Alexander Semin is another Capital star who could use the Winter Classic as his jumping off point. Semin leads the Caps with 18 goals but he hasn't scored one since Nov. 28, a span of 11 games for him (he missed two with an injury).
Washington got a lot of help from its most unsung guys to pull out of its slump.
For instance, Jay Beagle, who has played 17 NHL games over the course of three seasons, scored a key goal in Tuesday's win over Montreal. He also had one against the Devils nine days ago.
Mathieu Perreault missed Tuesday's game with a broken nose, but the Caps would like to have him back for Saturday because of the energy and speed he provides on the second line between Brooks Laich and Semin. Perreault has 5 goals in 12 games this season.
Very little attention gets paid to the other two guys on Crosby's line, but Chris Kunitz
and Pascal Dupuis
have been playing their roles so well that it has allowed Crosby to do his thing. Kunitz and Dupuis have combined for 18 goals and 24 assists this season.
Mark Letestu and Chris Conner have been effective on the Penguins' third line with Tyler Kennedy
. Letestu has 17 points in 38 games and Conner has 6 points in 22 games, but it's the energy he provides that matters most to the Penguins. There are no lost shifts when Bylsma goes into his bottom six, which also includes Craig Adams
, Arron Asham
and Mike Rupp.
Washington is hoping to have a healthy blue line for the Winter Classic, and right now it's looking pretty good.
Jeff Schultz played Tuesday night, his first game since breaking his thumb on Dec. 6. Tom Poti has been scratched with a head injury, but coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters Wednesday that he should be ready to go.
The question is who comes out?
Tyler Sloan is likely to be scratched, but the other six defensemen -- Schultz, Mike Green, Scott Hannan, John Erskine, John Carlson and Karl Alzner -- all have made a good case to play even if Poti is ready to go.
Washington has yielded just seven goals over the last five games. It's 11th in the NHL in goals against per game (2.62).
Pittsburgh, which is second in the NHL in goals against per game (2.31), has allowed only seven even-strength goals in the last six games.
The Penguins' top four is as good as any in the NHL with Brooks Orpik
paired with Kris Letang
and Paul Martin
with Zbynek Michalek
. Alex Goligoski is a power-play specialist on the third pairing, and coach Dan Bylsma has to decide if he's going to play with Deryk Engelland
or Ben Lovejoy
as the sixth defensemen.
Power-play goals will be at a premium Saturday. Neither team is scoring a lot with the man-advantage, but both teams have been fantastic in shorthanded situations.
It says a lot about the Penguins that despite leading the NHL in total penalties (240) and penalty minutes per game (17.0) they are also tied for No. 1 in the League with an 87.5-percent penalty kill. Their power play is only average -- 17th in the NHL at 16.9 percent.
Washington victimized the Penguins for both a power-play goal and a shorthanded goal in the shootout loss on Dec. 23. The Capitals power play is 12th in the NHL at 18.5 percent and their PK is seventh at 84.8 percent.
As has been documented so far in three episodes of "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic," Dan Bylsma and Bruce Boudreau are polar opposites.
Bylsma is the high energy, rev-it-up, studious one. Boudreau is the free-spirited, motivational and, yes, potty-mouthed one.
Their teams take on their characters, and it works for both of them.
What's interesting is how the two coaches jockey when the Penguins and Capitals meet. Just like the Penguins and Capitals, Bylsma and Boudreau seem to be at their best in this rivalry. No stone gets left unturned. The speeches become epic, the bench tactics even more refined.
They're aware that the stakes are high, and both coaches seem to love the spotlight even if they refuse to say it.
Credit goes to Boudreau for trying to change the Capitals' image. He's attempting to turn them into a safer team and by the looks of things it's working. The offense has suffered a bit in recent weeks, but the Capitals chalk that up to growing pains.
Credit goes to Bylsma for having his finger directly on the pulse of his team. He doesn't mettle with his lines or defensive pairings. He never strayed from Marc-Andre Fleury
's side when the potential All-Star goalie was wavering at the beginning of the season. His optimism bleeds through the Penguins' dressing room.Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer