Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 26, 2010

A Winter Classic Worthy Of The Hype

Shortly after Ben Roethlisberger took a knee on the final play of the Steelers’ Thursday night victory over the Carolina Panthers, work began to transform Heinz Field in Pittsburgh into an outdoor hockey arena. In less than a week it will be New Year’s Day and time once again for the best idea anyone in the NHL has had since Jacques Plante put on a goalie mask. The fourth annual NHL Winter Classic is almost here.

The first Winter Classic was played on January 1, 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. More than 71,000 fans saw the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins defeat the Sabres. The next two Classics were played at truly classic venues, Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park. The 2009 game between the Blackhawks and visiting Detroit Red Wings had the highest television ratings of any hockey game in more than 30 years. Last year’s Classic was an overtime thriller, with the Bruins defeating the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 and becoming the first home team to win the annual outdoor game. An added bonus for the Fenway faithful last New Year’s Day was the announcement of the members of the U.S. Olympic hockey team immediately after the game.

This year’s contest pits the Washington Capitals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, two teams that have become arch-rivals in the Eastern Conference. The rivalry is fueled in large part by the fact that these two franchises have on their rosters the two most exciting players in the NHL.

For the Capitals it’s 25-year old left wing Alex Ovechkin. In five seasons with the Caps, Ovechkin has average more than 50 goals and 100 points a year. He was Rookie of the Year in the 2005-2006 season. He’s won the Ted Lindsay Award, given to the outstanding player as voted by the players themselves, the last three years; and the Hart Trophy, the MVP as voted by sportswriters, twice. In the 2007-2008 season he led the league in both goals and total points, with 65 and 112. That meant he added the Rocket Richard and Art Ross Trophies to his mantle and became the first NHL player to win all four top awards in a single year.

Ovechkin is a fantastically skilled player and a dynamic skater who plays the game all-out every shift on the ice. Any highlight reel of his goals will include scenes of him scoring from seemingly impossible positions. But he’s also something of a showboat, known for over the top celebrations after scoring. And he can be a dirty player. Last season he received an automatic two-game suspension for receiving his third game misconduct penalty, after he sent Blackhawks’ defenseman Brian Campbell into the boards with a hit that left Campbell with a fractured clavicle and rib.

For all of his awards, the one thing Ovechkin does not have is a Stanley Cup championship. The 23-year old star of the Pittsburgh Penguins, center Sidney Crosby, doesn’t have the array of personal awards that Ovechkin owns. Not that he’s lacking for personal trophies, having won each of the top four awards once. But the goal of every NHL player and team is to end the season skating around the rink with Lord Stanley’s trophy held overhead. In 2009 Crosby led the Penguins to their third Stanley Cup and first since the retirement of the incomparable Mario Lemieux. Crosby is not as flashy as Ovechkin, but Sid the Kid is an elegant skater and a scoring machine with his own flair for the dramatic. It was of course the Canadian Crosby who scored the overtime goal against the U.S. to earn Team Canada the gold medal in last year’s Vancouver Olympics.

Last year Washington raced through the regular season, tallying 121 points and easily earning the top Eastern Conference seed for the playoffs. Pittsburgh finished with 101 points, two behind New Jersey in the Atlantic Division and thus was seeded fourth. That set up a playoff schedule in which both teams were stunned by the upstart Montreal Canadiens. The eighth-seeded Canadiens, who weren’t even assured of a playoff berth until the final day of the regular season, dispatched the Capitals in the opening round and the Penguins in the conference semi-finals, both in seven games.

As this season approaches its mid-point, the Penguins are the hotter of these two teams. With 50 points in 36 games they lead the league, and their +35 differential between goals scored and goals allowed is also the best. Crosby is a major reason for their success so far. He’s notched at least one point in 23 consecutive games, the longest streak in almost two decades. Not surprisingly, his 29 goals and 60 total points both lead the NHL. The Capitals on the other hand have blown hot and cold. A 3-2 win in Ottawa last Monday snapped an 8-game winless streak for Washington, a period of futility that would have been unthinkable last season. An uncharacteristic season-long power outage by Ovechkin hasn’t helped. With just 12 goals to date, he ranks 39th in the league. Still, Washington is tied for the lead in the Southeast Division, and will certainly be in the mix come playoff time.

On Thursday the two teams squared off in D.C. in an indoor prelude to the New Year’s Day Classic. It was an intense 60 minutes of hockey that ended with the score tied at 3. Crosby deflected a shot from the point for Pittsburgh’s first goal, and later added an assist to continue his scoring streak. As has been the case too often this season, Ovechkin was shut out. In the overtime Penguin goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made a highlight reel glove save on a shot by Mike Green that looked certain to be a game-winner for the Caps. Finally the two teams went to a shootout that went seven rounds before Pascal Dupuis won it for Pittsburgh.

They’ll do it again next Saturday, in the open air and before a far larger crowd at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Millions of casual fans who don’t normally pay much attention to hockey will tune in to watch. They’ll get to see two young superstars both of whom have already accomplished much. The really good news for the NHL is that both Crosby and Ovechkin should be around for many years to come, still shooting, still scoring, still thrilling the fans.

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