2011 NHL Winter Classic: Reasons To Watch Besides the Guys Wearing The "C"

MIke DusakContributor IDecember 30, 2010

2011 NHL Winter Classic: Reasons To Watch Besides the Guys Wearing The "C"

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    The 2011 Bridgestone Winter Classic will feature the renewed rivalry of the Capitals and Penguins on New Year's Day

    Crosby, Ovechkin. Caps, Pens.

    On paper, the 2011 version of the NHL's Bridgestone Winter Classic is everything you'd expect it to be. It's got two of the league's top teams and two of the league's most exciting and skilled players. So no doubt we've all been subjected to the "Ovi/Sid" so-called rivalry, with countless mentions of the superstars in commercials and advertisements.

    This is not one of those promotions. This is about the other reasons that the matchup of the Caps and Pens at Heinz Field is so intriguing. This is about the other guys, the ones who don't get all the glory; this is about the other things that make the Winter Classic such a great spectacle and platform for the greatest game on earth.  

It's Hockey...Outdoors!

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    Remember this? I sure do. The best of times.

    Hockey was born outdoors, while I understand that you can't play EVERY game outdoors, but seriously how cool is it to watch grown men play like you used to out on the pond??

    Almost all of us puckheads grew up playing on a local pond frozen over during the winter, I know I sure did. The outdoor element adds an authentic feel to the game that can't be matched when compared to say playing a game inside the Air Canada Centre. 

    Playing outdoors is fun, exciting and provides that nostalgic factor that upholds the hockey tradition that we all know and love. 

The Alumni Game

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    Peter Bondra and his Caps will take on Mario and his Pens

    I still can't believe that this is the first year of the Winter Classic that will feature a full-on alumni game with former players from the Pens and Caps. 

    To me this is the coolest part of the 2011 Winter Classic. The NHL totally got this one right and it doesn't shock me that the former players such as Mario Lemieux and Peter Bondra and others are amped up to lace up the skates again. 

    "We all grew up playing on outdoor rinks, so we're really looking forward to having this chance to skate on the Winter Classic rink at Heinz Field," Lemieux said. 

    On a personal level, having lived next to Peter Bondra when I was a kid not too long ago, this is beyond awesome for me. Growing up I played street hockey with his son David (now playing for the USHL's Chicago Steel) and strapped up the goalie pads staring down a 500-goal scorer in the NHL on a regular basis. 

    Not only is it cool for me, it has to be great for Penguin fans to be able to see their hero Mario Lemieux play again, even if it is just an exhibition. The guy saved the Penguins when he took over the team and has since been one of the best owners in pro sports. 

    Other notable former NHLers suiting up for the 2011 Winter Classic alumni game for the Penguins include Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, Pens TV announcer and fan favorite Bob Errey among others. 

    Joining Peter Bondra on the Capitals alumni bench will be Michal Pivonka, Scott Walker, Sylvain Cote, as well as Caps TV announcer Craig Laughlin.

    The alumni game will take place Friday, Dec. 31 at 9:30 a.m at Heinz Field. 

The Capitals

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    Backstrom and Carlson provide support for captain "Ovie"Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    The names you don't see on NHL.com 24/7—the same ones you won't see on ESPN's top 10. 

    The Caps and Pens might have two of the league's top players, but they are both surrounded by some incredible talent on both sides. 

    The Capitals feature one of the NHL's best two-way pivots in Nicklas Backstrom. No longer is the big Swede confused with the other Nicklas Backstrom in Minnesota as he has the most assists of anyone in the NHL the last three years, including Sidney Crosby and Vancouver's Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin. 

    Joining Ovechkin and Backstrom on the Caps' fearsome top unit is the ultra-skilled Russian winger Alexander Semin. Semin, a 40-goal scorer last season for the Caps has produced three 30-plus-goal seasons for Washington since GM George McPhee made him the 13th overall pick in the 2002 NHL entry draft. Known as the "other" Alex in D.C., Semin will dazzle the Heinz Field crowd with his soft hands, flashy moves and a wrist shot that just might be harder than that of teammate Ovechkin. 

    On the back end the Caps are equally as talented as they are up front with All-Star defenseman Mike Green and 20-year-old John Carlson. 

    Green recorded an astounding 31 goals two seasons ago in D.C. and is working on his third straight 70-point campaign on the blue line for Bruce Boudreau's Capitals. 

    He is joined by rookie John Carlson, whose name should sound familiar to U.S. hockey fans for his dramatic overtime winner in last year's World Juniors against Canada last year. He burst on the scene in last year's playoff series against Montreal when he posted a goal and three assists to go along with a sparkling plus-six rating while playing big-time playoff minutes. The Natick, Massachusetts native hasn't shown any signs of slowing that pace this season with 17 points, including four goals and a plus-11 rating while getting tons of ice time. 

    These are just some of the "other" guys who make the Capitals one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference and reigning President's Trophy winners. 

The Penguins

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    Letang and Malkin make life easier on Sid the kid in PittsburghBruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Sidney Crosby is having a monster 2010-11 season, with a 26-game point streak as of this writing. Nobody denies his place among the absolute best the NHL has to offer, but he also has some help from an outstanding supporting cast put together by GM Ray Shero.

    Joining Sid the kid on the wing and on the power play is slick Russian Evgeni Malkin. At just 24 years of age, "Geno" as he's come to be known in the Steel City, already has an Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top point producer and a Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs to go along with the Stanley Cup he won with the Pens in 2009. A smooth skater with soft hands, "Geno" is a sure bet to fill up the score sheet on New Year's Day.

    When healthy, Jordan Staal gives the Penguins arguably the league's strongest threesome down the middle and was key to the Pens' Stanley Cup run. Staal hasn't played this season due to injuries to his hand and foot, but you can be sure the Pens will be glad to have him back in the lineup soon. 

    On the blue line gone is longtime Penguin and power-play quarterback Sergei Gonchar, but GM Ray Shero filled the void by signing free agents Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Both have been called upon to eat up big minutes on the blue line and the Pens have raved about the zone play of the shot-blocking machine that is Michalek. 

    But the biggest surprise on the Pens blue line has been 23-year-old Kris Letang. The diminutive D-man, listed at under 6'0" tall and under 200 pounds has impressed with his physical play on opponents' top scoring lines and his seamless transition to quarterbacking one of the league's top power-play units. He's third in the league in plus/minus with a plus-19 and has registered 32 points in 38 games so far this season. It's no surprise that the Montreal, Quebec native leads all defenseman in All-Star voting and is a top candidate for the Norris Trophy.

The So-Called Ovie/Sid Rivalry

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    How about you guys drop the other glove and make it interestingAlex Livesey/Getty Images

    Do they hate each other? I don't know, they might, but we just don't know. Will they scrap or drop the gloves one of these times? Again, I have no idea, but how great is the intrigue of one of them finally getting on the others' nerves just enough that it results in an Ovi/Sid fight? 

    Since I don't really count on that happening (I know, right), let's have some fun and go to the matchup of Ovi and Sid. 


    Tale of the Tape

    Crosby: 5'11", 200 pounds

    Has fought previously, famously asking Bruin tough-guy (cough) Marc Savard to dance, even going so far to remove his visor to accommodate Savard to no avail. In his most recent bout, he absolutely obliterated the Dallas Stars' Matt Niskanen.


    Ovechkin: 6'2", 233 pounds

    The burly Russian might be in a different weight class than Canada's Golden Boy, but the two have had their disagreements in the past. He has dropped the gloves a few times as well, taking on Lightning super-pest Steve Downie and most recently Brandon Dubinsky of the Rangers. Dubs gave him quite the beating, but clearly with a frustrated Ovi.


    The more likely fight would probably be Pens tough-guy Eric Goddard and the Caps' resident puncher D.J. King, who otherwise serves no purpose. Another option may be Ovi verus Max Talbot, who has made no bones about his dislike for the Great Eight. 


    Who wins in a Fight, Sid or Ovi?

    You tell me. I'll take the size of Ovechkin. Guy has a serious mean streak—just ask the mangled body of Blackhawk Brian Campbell.