The reward for their patience? The Chicago Blackhawks.
Wait...the Chicago Blackhawks???
What the puck?!
Yes, I'm well aware that the Chicago Blackhawks are one of the NHL's marquee teams. And with good reason:
- member of the Original Six
- two Stanley Cups in the last five years (2010 and 2013)
- multiple elite players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp)
- exciting games against the Capitals over last few seasons
But this isn't just another NHL regular-season game. And it is not just another Sunday-afternoon game on NBC.
This is the Winter Classic.
The Winter Classic!
This is the game Capitals fans have waited seven years to host. When this hockey showcase was first played on New Year's Day 2008, at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Caps fans hoped, wished and prayed that their team would one day host it.
So the Sept. 20 announcement that the Capitals would indeed host the event was truly a dream come true.
And for this Capitals fan, such a scenario called for the dreaming up of possible matchups.
To determine that opponent, I asked myself one question:
If my Capitals were to play just one hockey game—outdoors, on national television, at a stadium of their choosing—who is the one opponent they would have to play to make this magical experience complete?
Duh. The Pittsburgh Penguins.
But I knew that wasn't going to happen. After all, the Caps already played the Pens at the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. Plus, the Penguins have participated in two Winter Classics altogether and another outdoor game this past January as part of the new Stadium Series.
Next up? The Philadelphia Flyers.
This is an older rivalry for the Capitals, and thanks to events from last season, it may even be a hotter rivalry at the moment. This would be a perfect game for the Caps to play outdoors.
But just like Pittsburgh, Philly has now participated in two Winter Classics. If the NHL is attempting to get more teams involved, then Philly would appear to be a weaker candidate. The same can be said for the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins. Both of these Washington rivals have played in a Winter Classic, and New York hosted two Stadium Series games last season.
Continuing through the process of elimination, I arrived at the Montreal Canadiens.
This choice may have been perfect. Like Chicago, New York and Boston, Montreal is an Original Six team. Better yet, they are a Canadian team that would draw attention from a fanbase that the NHL has not fully tapped into when scheduling the outdoor games.
In fact, the 2014 Winter Classic marked the first time a Canadian team participated in the event, when the Toronto played Detroit. The league could have continued that trend by choosing Montreal as Washington's opponent.
Don't forget the animosity between these two teams. I listed the Habs as one of the Capitals' most heated rivalries, and none of that hatred will subside as long as Montreal employs the likes of P.K. Subban, Brandon Prust and Tomas Plekanec. Needless to say, it would be an entertaining hockey game. It always is.
There was one more prospective opponent I considered for the Capitals in their Winter Classic: the New York Islanders.
Definitely not a choice that jumps out at you but take another look. The Islanders have yet to play in the Winter Classic, having only played in a Stadium Series game earlier this year. They have elite players who don't often get showcased by the NHL (John Tavares comes to mind first), in addition to the possibility of Jaroslav Halak playing his former team.
But the biggest draw of this matchup may actually be the old-timers game. If Bob Mason and Pat LaFontaine decided to play, they could call it "The New Year's Eve Epic."
Instead, the NHL chose Chicago.
I find that selection disrespectful.
If you think that is too strong of a sentiment, check out the list of past Winter Classic matchups and see if you notice a pattern:
|Winter Classic Matchups|
|2008||Ralph Wilson Stadium||Buffalo||Pittsburgh|
|2012||Citizens Bank Park||Philadelphia||New York (R)|
Still don't see the pattern?
Let Capitals beat reporter Adam Vingan enlighten you:
That's right. Caps fans waited all this time to host the signature event of the NHL regular season, and the league couldn't even muster a conference rival as an opponent.
To me, this is further proof that the Winter Classic is becoming watered down.
First, the NHL decided to cash in on the popularity of outdoor games by scheduling the Stadium Series in addition to the Winter Classic, meaning the Winter Classic is no longer the only outdoor game in town. And now, the NHL is further diluting their product by moving away from a true-rivalry game and, instead, simply staging a run-of-the-mill regular-season game that happens to be played outdoors.
What a difference four years makes. In 2011, the only part of the Penguins-Capitals clash at Heinz Field that was watered down was the weather. Rain delayed the start of the game and made a mockery of the playing surface throughout the evening, but it could not detract from another scintillating chapter in a long-running blood feud.
In 2015, the only thing that could save this rather ordinary matchup from becoming a great excuse to sleep off a New Year's Eve hangover is—ironically—the weather. At least if the DC area is blanketed by yet another snowstorm, Capitals fans can be enthralled by what's happening with the snow even if they aren't enthralled by what's happening on the ice.
Note: All Winter Classic news and information courtesy of NHL.com, unless noted otherwise.