NHL Winter Classic: 10 Reason Why Capitals-Penguins Will Be the Best One Yet

Alan Zlotorzynski@@zlotsportsCorrespondent IIIDecember 17, 2010

NHL Winter Classic: 10 Reason Why Capitals-Penguins Will Be the Best One Yet

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    2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
    2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA

    This year’s 2011 NHL Winter Classic will be the fourth NHL regular season game played outdoors in the United States and fifth in NHL history.

    The Canadian version called the Heritage Classic preceded the Winter Classic back in November of 2003. The Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens squared off in Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta. The Canadiens would come away victorious as temperatures would dip to minus-21 degrees with wind chill.

    The Winter Classic is the idea of NBC VP Sports Executive Jon Miller. Miller pitched the idea to NHL executives, and they immediately embraced the idea.

    The first Classic was held on New Year’s Day 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, NY between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres. An NHL-record crowd of 71,217 was in attendance to witness this special event.

    The game was an instant success with better than expected television ratings. The game didn't disappoint; it was as if NBC and the NHL had Hollywood write the script. Great playmaking, better goaltending, snow during the game and a shootout finish would add to the drama. Arguably the best player in the world scored the game-winning goal in the shootout. Sidney Crosby beat Sabres goalie Ryan Miller giving the Penguins the 2-1 victory.

    The next two Classics were played in two of the oldest outdoor ballparks in the country, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston.

    The 2009 Classic at Wrigley Field featured the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. This game would feature more scoring than the first Classic, as the home team Blackhawks would lead 3-1 after the first period. The Red Wings would score five times in the next two periods and win the second Classic 6-4.

    Last year’s Classic in Boston would feature the first home team to win the game. Played at Fenway Park, the Boston Bruins would host the Philadelphia Flyers. For the second time in three years goaltending would steal the show, as Boston's Tim Thomas and Philadelphia's Michael Leighton would be two of the three stars of the game. Marco Sturm's goal just 1:57 into the extra session gave the Bruins the win.

    The 2010 USA Olympic Hockey Team was announced following the game, adding to the allure of the event. The first three Winter Classics were great hockey games that gave the NHL a boost headed into the second half of its season.

    This year’s Winter Classic looks to be the best one yet. The game features two of the best teams in the NHL, the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The game also features arguably the best players in the world, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin.

    The two teams have a storied and heated rivalry and one that will be sure to heat up the cold outdoor rink. The following are 10 reasons why I believe this year’s Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will be the best Classic yet.

No. 10: The Weather

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    Snow fell for most of the first Winter classic
    Snow fell for most of the first Winter classic

    The first Winter Classic's loudest cheer went up when the snow started to fall. Most of the second and third periods were played in what looked like a backyard pond setting with the backdrop of heavy snow. It was exactly the feel the NHL wanted for this event.

    The last two games did not see a flake, and there were even concerns that rain might hamper last year’s contest and possibly force a delay at Fenway Park in Boston. The rain held off, and so did the snow.

    The city of Pittsburgh gives the NHL and its fans another opportunity for a snow-filled game. The record snowfall for January 1st in Pittsburgh is 6.7 inches back in 1961. Since 1990 the average temperature in Pittsburgh for New Year's Day is 31 degrees.

    Pittsburgh has seen trace amounts of snow on each of the past three New Year's Days, lending hope that this year's Classic could see some of what Buffalo was able to enjoy back in '08.

    Although the first classic had a lot of snow and Sidney Crosby, it didn't have their archrivals, and Crosby didn't have Ovechkin.

No. 9: HBO's 24/7 and the Hype

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    The HBO 4 part series adds to this year's Winter Classic
    The HBO 4 part series adds to this year's Winter Classic

    The Penguins and Capitals are being featured in HBO's 24/7 series. The show gives fans an unprecedented look inside the locker room and personal lives of two great teams.

    Similar to the Hard Knocks series, which follows an NFL team during training camp, nothing is left to the imagination.

    HBO goes deep inside both teams, and by the time the Classic rolls around you will feel as if you've had dinner with Ovechkin and Crosby. This will only add to the great rivalry that is the Capitals-Penguins and, even deeper, the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry, which I'm sure HBO won't forget to include.

    The 24/7 series is an Emmy Award-winning series, and critics have given this installment great reviews.

    NBC is promoting this year’s game more than they ever have any previous Winter Classics. The NBC commercial for this year's contest features Ovechkin and Crosby standing in Heinz Field staring at one another while the rain turns to ice. Legendary broadcaster Bob Costas is the voice-over giving the game specifics.

    Not that this game or these two teams need any more hype, but all of this will add to a game that the NHL hopes will catapult its viewership and ratings.

    Many in the league and network have been clamoring for this matchup. Some upper management in other NHL cities balked at this being the Penguins' second appearance in the brief four-year history of the Classic.

    The NHL was close to matching the Capitals and Rangers in this year’s classic in a game that would have been played at Yankee Stadium.

    Both NBC and the NHL quickly realized that while the Rangers are a good, young, up-and-coming team, they simply can’t produce the rivalry of Caps vs. Pens and Crosby vs. Ovechkin.

    This game, like most important and anticipated sporting events, will no doubt be over-hyped. I can't think of a better way to recover on New Year's Day than lying around watching the Capitals and the Penguins.

No. 8: Last Season—The Penguins Have Revenge on Their Minds, for Once

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    Ovechkin scores one of his three goals in a Super Bowl Sunday win
    Ovechkin scores one of his three goals in a Super Bowl Sunday win

    The Penguins have not beaten the Capitals since they eliminated them in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2009. The Penguins, after eliminating Washington in seven games, would go on to win their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

    The Capitals were 4-0 vs. Pittsburgh last season, including a Super Bowl Sunday win that stunned the Penguins. The Capitals had won 13 in a row when Pittsburgh came into the Verizon Center for a midday Super Bowl Sunday showdown.

    In a game nationally televised on NBC, the Pens would jump all over Washington as Sidney Crosby scored the first two goals, leading the Pens to a 2-0 first period lead.

    Ovechkin would answer in the second, but Pittsburgh would lead 4-2 after two periods.

    The Great 8 would out-duel Sid the Kid in the third period, scoring two more goals, gaining a hat trick and leading the Caps to a 4-4 tie after regulation.

    In overtime, Ovechkin wouldn't score the game-winner, but he did set it up, as Mike Knuble beat Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury just 2:49 in the extra period, and the Caps would win their 14th in a row.

    The Capitals outscored Pittsburgh 21-13 in four meetings last season. The two teams will meet once before the Classic on December 23rd in Washington.

No. 7: Bruce Boudreau's Job Security

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    Bruce Boudreau ponders the furture with the Great 8 by his side
    Bruce Boudreau ponders the furture with the Great 8 by his sideJim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Will Coach Boudreau even be standing behind the bench? The Capitals are currently mired in a seven-game losing streak, and the numbers inside the losing streak are downright ugly. This is their longest losing streak since the '06-07 season, when Washington dropped nine in a row.

    Analysts speaking on the Versus Network's Hockey Central have begun to mention Boudreau's job security. Many feel a lot of teams are following a blueprint the Montreal Canadiens used in eliminating the Presidents' Trophy winners in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.

    A blueprint many of those same analysts feel Boudreau had an entire offseason to adjust to and fix.

    Sunday's 7-0 loss to the Rangers was the worst defeat since the '05-06 season. The last time the Capitals lost this many games in a row, Bruce Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon behind Washington’s bench. Boudreau would take over and lead the Capitals to a remarkable turnaround, getting the Capitals back to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.

    The numbers, as stated, are ugly, and nothing seems to be working. While Washington remains in first place in the NHL Southeast's division, their lead has been reduced to just two points over Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

    During the streak the high-powered Capitals offense has disappeared. They have been outscored 25-9 in the last seven games and 45-29 in their last 14 games. During this 14-game stretch they are 4-10 and have been shut out four times. The Capitals were shut out just four times in the last two seasons combined.

    If you watched HBO's 24/7 special profiling the Capitals and Penguins for the upcoming Winter Classic, then you had to notice that the Caps do not seem to be responding to Boudreau, no matter how much cursing, screaming and butt-chewing he does.

    Boudreau has won 62 percent of his games as Washington’s coach, so firing him probably sounds irrational, but so does scoring just nine goals in seven games by a team that features Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. It will be interesting to see if Boudreau is standing behind these guys on New Year’s Day.

No. 6: The Rivalry Between the Cities—All Three of Them

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    The logo from the Baltimore Skipjacks during the Pens-Caps years
    The logo from the Baltimore Skipjacks during the Pens-Caps years

    Washington and Pittsburgh does not immediately conjure up thoughts of a classic two-city sports rivalry. However, if you include the Baltimore area, things get a little more interesting.

    While Washington has the Redskins, Nationals and Wizards, Baltimore counters with the Ravens and Orioles.

    If you’re a fan in Baltimore, you could care less about any of those teams in Washington and vice versa. Until the Nationals arrived, many made the drive up the BWI parkway from Northern Virginia and D.C. to see the Orioles play. The Orioles were a team shared in the region and the reason that up until two seasons ago they did not have Baltimore listed on the road jerseys. 

    It took the Orioles 36 years to return the city's name on the road uniforms.

    Nobody cares about the Wizards, so the Capitals are the region's only shared team these days. Until they moved into the heart of the District in 1998, Washington played its home games at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD, a venue that was just as close to Baltimore as it was to Washington.

    On any given night as much as a quarter of the Verizon Center can be filled with fans from the Baltimore area. Even a local radio station, WNST (WNST.net) out of Baltimore, will occasionally run road trips to Capitals games.

    Baltimore never had an NHL team, but both the Capitals and the Penguins housed their top minor league teams out of the Baltimore Arena for a time. The Baltimore Skipjacks (logos pictured above) of the American Hockey League served as the top minor league affiliate for the Penguins from 1982-88, and the Capitals took over in 1989 and stayed until 1993.

    Many players and coaches that went on to good and some great NHL careers for both organizations cut their teeth in Baltimore.

    So throwing Baltimore into the mix heats things up a bit. Many transplants from Pittsburgh live in the Baltimore-Washington area and infiltrate many Caps-Pens games on a frequent basis.

    Throw in the Ravens-Steelers, Pirates-Orioles and the overall domination Pittsburgh sports has enjoyed over the entire region, and you can see why this Winter Classic may have the best rivalry yet, even over Chicago and Detroit.

No. 5: The Uniforms—Style Points Always Score High

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    The Penguins Created Jersey for this years winter classic ,honors all of their uniforms
    The Penguins Created Jersey for this years winter classic ,honors all of their uniforms

    Each Winter Classic has had the teams wear retro uniforms. The Penguins will wear a jersey never worn before. They will wear a jersey that honors their history.

    Keith Leach said during the unveiling, "We wanted to create a uniform that celebrates the rich history of Penguins hockey, but with a new look—giving fans something they would really like.”

    The logo, which was previously released in May, is the Penguins’ original logo from the inaugural 1967-68 season—although it was never worn on a uniform. It features a skating penguin wearing a scarf.

    The Capitals will wear the uniforms they wore from 1974 to 1995.

    "There is a great sense of history in playing hockey outdoors, and we wanted to pay tribute to our team's history with this uniform," Caps GM George McPhee said. "They turned out very well, got a terrific reaction from our fans and will look fantastic on New Year's Day."

    As a Caps fan I like the retro look, but I have to give the first victory in this year’s Classic to the Penguins and the thought and design behind the jerseys they chose. This is Pittsburgh’s second Winter Classic appearance; they wore their powder blues in their first appearance in 2008.

No. 4: Sidney Crosby—Putting the Debate to Sleep for a While

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    Sidney Crosby with his mustache and 20 game point scoring streak
    Sidney Crosby with his mustache and 20 game point scoring streakChris McGrath/Getty Images

    Yes, Sid the Kid is reason enough to watch any game this season and as of this article has a 20-game point scoring streak. Crosby is currently running away with the NHL scoring title, as Tampa Bay's young sensation Steven Stamkos trails Crosby by 10 points in the race.

    Crosby with 26 goals also leads Stamkos (24) in the goal-scoring race.

    The closest Capital to Crosby in the goal scoring hunt is a guy named Alexander, not Ovechkin but Semin. Alexander Semin trails Crosby by eight goals.

    Ovechkin is in the race for the scoring title, but he's in danger of being lapped. With just seven points in his last 10 games, Ovechkin has 36 points and trails Crosby by 18. Crosby has 39 points during his current 20-game point scoring streak and 18 points over his last 10 games.

    If Crosby's point scoring streak continues, he will be at 26 games by the Classic.

No. 3: The History of the Rivalry—One-Sided but Heated

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    Petr nedved scored the quadruple overtime game winner in game two
    Petr nedved scored the quadruple overtime game winner in game two

    With all due respect to the Red Wings and Blackhawks, two of the NHL’s original six teams and the teams involved in the second Winter Classic, the Pens and Caps have a pretty fierce rivalry and history themselves.

    Although not as long in years, this series has provided many thrilling regular season games and playoff battles.

    Crosby and Ovechkin joined a rivalry already in progress. These two teams have met 189 times in regular season play with the Penguins winning just three more games than Washington. The Pens' edge all-time is 86-83-16-4. Only 17 goals separate these two teams in their regular season history.

    It's not so much their regular season battles that produced this rivalry though. It’s the postseason games and series these teams have played, dominated by Pittsburgh, that have given the rivalry its life.

    In eight post season series matchups, the Penguins have won seven. On four occasions the Pens have come back from at least two games down and twice come back from 3-1 series deficits.

    The last two-game deficit Pittsburgh overcame was in the 2009 playoffs. Pittsburgh beat Washington in seven games and then went on to win the Stanley Cup, their third in franchise history. The Capitals have yet to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.

    Pittsburgh would trail the series 2-0 after a Game2 that featured hat tricks by both Ovechkin and Crosby. The Caps would win that game 4-3 but lose the series by the same margin.

    The Capitals' playoff history is well documented. The Caps are just 2-7 all-time in Game 7s. Pittsburgh has victimized Washington in three of those series.

    The most memorable playoff game between these two teams took place in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs back in 1996. With the Caps looking to take another 3-1 series lead on home ice, the Penguins would stun the Capitals, winning the fifth longest overtime game in NHL history.

    Shortly before 2:00 a.m. on April 25th, 1996, Petr Nedved would score with only 45 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime. Nedved had scored the tying goal shortly before the end of regulation and netted the game-winner four hours later. Nedved's quadruple OT goal allowed the Pens to tie the series, and a deflated Capitals team would not win again, losing in six games.

    The Penguins own a commanding 30-19 postseason record against Washington.

No. 2: Crosby Vs. Ovechkin—Debating the Best; What's Your Preference?

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    They may appear on the Price is Right but theres no love lost between these two
    They may appear on the Price is Right but theres no love lost between these two

    The debate began soon after Crosby was drafted No. 1 overall by the Penguins in the 2005 NHL entry draft. Ovechkin was drafted in the same spot by Washington the year before.

    Both players would debut in the same season, and their goal was simple: They were the centerpieces for two once proud franchises that had suffered recent multiple-season playoff droughts.

    Although their goal was clear in the team concept, they were immediately compared to one another with Ovechkin striking the first blow. Ovechkin would become the first rookie since Teemu Selanne to score 50 goals as a rookie. Ovechkin would net 52 first season goals compared to Crosby's 39.

    That disparity would give Ovechkin the Rookie of the Year award and begin a trend of individual accomplishments compared to Crosby’s team triumphs.

    Ovechkin's physical style has led many to question Sid's toughness, and Sid's teams' accomplishments have led those same critics to questions Ovechkin's leadership qualities.

    Ovechkin hasn't been to a Stanley Cup Final, while Crosby has been to two of them, winning one in 2009. Crosby has an Olympic gold medal, a gold medal he earned for his country by scoring the tournament-winning goal in overtime. Ovechkin's Russian team didn't make the medal round in the same tournament. 

    When considering this rivalry, it's all in taste and preference and how you like your hockey—Type A vs. Type B personalities. There is no love lost between these two, and at times each has admitted as much.

    Ovechkin has won two MVPs to Crosby’s one. Ovie just won his third consecutive player of the year award. Crosby has just one. This award, now known as the Ted Lindsay Award, is given to the most outstanding player in the league as voted on by the NHL Players' Association, or in other words voted on by his peers.

    Crosby won his first Rocket Richard Trophy for the most goals in a season last year, finishing in a tie with Steven Stamkos. Ovechkin won the two previous titles.

    While all of these awards are great for Hall of Fame voting, here are the numbers that really need a look.

    The Penguins with Sidney Crosby have been to 62 playoff games. That amounts to 11 playoff series, and the Penguins have won eight of them. Crosby has 82 points in 62 postseason games. Crosby led the Penguins to their third Stanley Cup in franchise history in 2009.

    Meanwhile, Ovechkin has played in just 28 playoff games, scoring 20 goals and adding 20 assists. Alex Ovechkin has played in four Game 7s; the Caps' record in those Game 7s with Ovechkin is just 1-3, with all three losses coming on home ice. This above everything has people wondering if Ovechkin can parlay his greatness into a Stanley Cup.

    Head to head Crosby has a one-game edge over Ovechkin 10-9 and leads in points with 33 compared to Ovechkin's 28. Crosby and the Penguins beat the Capitals in their only head-to-head playoff matchup. Crosby and Ovechkin played well in the series, each netting eight goals apiece.

    The Capitals are my team, and Ovechkin is my player, but if you asked me to vote on which one I would want and the hardware that came with them, I would take the Kid and his Stanley Cup. Sorry Ovie, but it's time to dispel the Russian myth of not being leaders, and most of all the jinx of the Capitals' postseason past.

    Whatever your preference, the Great 8 and Sid the Kid make this year’s Bridgestone Winter Classic the most anticipated Classic yet.

No. 1: The Return of Mario Lemieux

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    Peter Bondra leads the Capitals Alum team against the Super Mario.
    Peter Bondra leads the Capitals Alum team against the Super Mario.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Okay, okay, so the great Mario and Caps sniper Peter Bondra will not be playing on New Year's Day, but they will lace up the skates and play in the alum game the day before.

    Lemieux, along with other former Penguin greats, will suit up and take the ice to play against Bondra and other former Washington Capitals. Lemieux leads the Penguins, while Bondra will lead the Capitals.

    Bondra, a 500-goal scorer in his NHL career, leads these former Caps into battle: Michal Pivonka, Scott Walker, Sylvain Cote, Greg Adams, Don Beaupre, Nick Kypreos, Yvon Labre, Gord Lane, Craig Laughlin, Mark Lofthouse, Denis Maruk, Alan May, Paul Mulvey, Robert Picard and Ken Sabourin.

    Lemieux will be joined by other Hall of Famers like Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Larry Murphy and Paul Coffey.
    Other alums playing for the Penguins are Phil Bourque, Rob Brown, Rod Buskas, Jay Caufield, Bob Errey, Dave Hannan, Francois Leroux, Troy Loney, Greg Malone, Gilles Meloche, Craig Simpson, Frank Pietrangelo, Gary Rissling and Rick Tocchet,

    The NHL Network will carry the game, and players will be wired for sound. The network will show highlights of the game when broadcasting the current Penguins and Capitals Friday night practices.

    More players are expected to be announced, and full current rosters can be found on NHL.com.