|Alex Ovechkin skates during Friday practice at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field in advance of the Winter Classic. (REUTERS/Jason Cohn)
PITTSBURGH -- Safety first isn't always the prevailing mindset of an NHL player, but the condition of the ice at Heinz Field on Saturday night may force a change in that outlook.
While league officials are still confident the game will be played at 8 p.m. -- despite pouring rain and mild temperatures here New Year's Day -- the ice is the great unknown.
Officials have been working overnight and through Saturday morning to clear the surface from excess water, but until the teams get out for the pregame skate, no one will know for certain if the temporary surface at the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers is fit for hockey.
"Yesterday, honestly yeah (it was dangerous)," Capitals winger Mike Knuble said following a gameday skate held indoors at the Consol Energy Center. "There were holes -- and not just one or two. There's potential for a lot more if you get 10 guys skating at the pace of an NHL game."
Both the NHL and the players' association will pay close attention to the conditions throughout the day to ensure there is no risk. The rain is predicted to subside in the early evening with cooler, drier air moving in.
"They won't make an unsafe game for us," said Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis. "The NHLPA is involved and are there to make the safest place for us. It's something that maybe before the game you think about but once you are out there the hockey player mentality takes over and you go all out."
It's almost a guarantee that whatever the conditions are at Heinz, the ice will hurt the skill players the most. That said, Capitals player rep, Brooks Laich, said NHLers will play on just about any surface.
"I think you are talking to the wrong guy -- any ice is good ice," Laich said. "The ice I grew up playing on, we had a tractor until I was about 19 years old flooding the ice back home. I think we're pretty spoiled with the rinks we get to play on all year long.
"A little bad ice here or there shouldn't deter us at all."
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby agreed with Laich.
"Whether you are playing outside or any building in the league you adjust to bounces or conditions, it's part of playing," Crosby said. "I think you tend to simplify things a little more if the ice gets soft or a little slower. We would do that at other buildings if it gets like that too.
"I think it's something that will be expected from both teams."
If the game does go, the Penguins will get a boost from the return of centre Jordan Staal, who has missed the entire season thus far with hand and foot injuries.