PITTSBURGH — “Everything is good,” Washington Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth said with a straight face. “Everything except the ice.”
After the surface at Heinz Field was alternately referred to as “slushy,” “crappy” and “cracked,” by Caps players — hardly the conditions the NHL wants for its showcase game on New Year’s Day — the league decided to delay the start time from 1 p.m., as originally scheduled, until 8 p.m.
By the time the Capitals got on the ice for their 3 p.m. practice on Friday, pylons had to be placed on the surface to cover holes and other danger areas. That, of course, led comparisons to (insert your least favourite Leafs defenceman here.)
The forecast for the Pittsburgh area calls for mild temperatures and rain throughout Saturday which would in all likelihood have made the temporary ice unplayable.
But the show must go on and the league is desperate to get the ultra-hyped game played on Jan. 1. So with drier, cooler air expected to move into the area in the evening, under the lights it will be.
Players certainly aren’t expecting pristine conditions and intend to make the best of it, especially in front of a sold-out crowd of 70,000 at the noisy home to the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It’s the same for both teams, the same risks,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “So if it was on gravel, it wouldn’t matter.”
Ever the optimist, Caps captain Alex Ovechkin saw the potential upside in the Classic’s potential delay into prime time. “If it’s going to be eight, you can celebrate New Years too,” Ovechkin said. And what will he do to ring in 2011? Silence and a classic toothless Ovie grin was the reply ... Ovie plans to debut a snazzy pair of CCM skates for the Classic. The Caps star has been working with the skate manufacturer since summer on the flashy black, red and gold boots, which he wore for Friday’s skate through the slush ... As strong as the rivalry is between Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the numbers make it a non-story this year anyway. Boudreau says the explanation is simple. “I think (Ovechkin’s) scoring touch will come when our power play starts to click the way it’s supposed too.” ... Before the Caps hit the ice for their skate, Ovechkin was doing a little Winter Classic souvenir shopping at a booth set up between the two locker rooms. What, he doesn’t get loads of free swag?
The cheesy moustache is gone. Penguins captain Crosby, one of the more superstitious players in the game, is clean-shaven once again after his 25-game points streak came to a halt ... For several Penguins, including Crosby, this is a second crack at the Classic which may help deal with whatever conditions arise. “In Buffalo with the snow, it was pretty tough,” Crosby said. “It made it pretty slow and the puck was bouncing. If we were able to play on that, we’ll be ready for whatever happens.” ... Several players liked the idea of playing under the lights where the glare would be less. Given that several prime-time NFL games have been played here, the game should look spectacular on TV. “It will be kind of neat under the lights,” Crosby said ... It will also give the players a more normal game-day experience. Both teams plan on holding traditional morning skates, although they will take place indoors at the Consol Energy Center to avoid the rain.
Among the cool fringe events surrounding the Classic is an elite bantam tournament being held here during the week, in part organized by Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. Among the teams battling on Friday — a team from Crosby’s home town (Cole Harbour, N.S.) and Evgeni Malkin’s Russian home, H.C. Mettalurg ... Following the Pens practice, the team had a family skate on the Heinz Field surface. Among the participants was Crosby’s father Troy, a former Montreal Canadiens prospect and young Jackson Cooke, young son of Pens tough-guy Matt. “He had a blast,” Cooke said of his son. “This is great. I’ve been here a lot to see the Steelers but just to be in this stadium is pretty cool.” ... Speaking of the football team, one of the more interested spectators at the Penguins practice on Friday was Canadian Shaun Suisham, better known in this town as the Steelers’ place kicker ... Cooke was one of many players who likened the atmosphere to the Super Bowl, given the way the city has embraced the Classic. “Obviously it doesn’t carry the pressure of those big games, but it carries the hype and the buildup. To be able to have all those things without the pressure is a very cool thing.”
The Winter Classic on NBC is going up against the end of the Rose Bowl and all of the Fiesta Bowl — neither college football game has particularly marquee matchups ... The alumni game, which ended in a 5-5 tie, featured a pair of broadcasters familiar to Canadian viewers. Hockey Night In Canada’s Craig Simpson suited up for the Penguins while Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos was prowling the wing for the Capitals ... The Penguins are taking residence in the Steelers locker room, using less than half of one of the NFL’s more spacious facilities. Crosby, by the way, had his stall where the Steelers offensive line hang their gear ... Penguins forward Jordan Staal will be a game-time decision but it would be at least a mild surprise if he dresses considering he missed all of the season and training camp ... The Caps’ Jason Chmira on the later start. “It will just add to the fun, give the fans a chance to drink a few more beers.” ... Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis delighted the 10,000 or so at Friday’s practice by skating his first few laps wearing a Steelers football helmet.