The 2011 Winter Classic might be the single biggest sporting event involving a D.C.-area franchise in decades. When the Washington Capitals hit the ice outdoors at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to take on the archrival Penguins there's little question it will be a memorable day for the fans and players participating in hockey's grandest spectacle.
When it comes to success, the Caps have been the premiere team in these parts, and their high-flying act has been rewarded with a New Year's day game on center stage. And who better than against the team who has overshadowed them throughout their history? The Penguins are just a season and a half removed from hoisting the Stanley Cup and are led by the best player in hockey in Sidney Crosby. Washington's regular season dominance had yet to translate to the postseason, while their superstar Alex Ovechkin has been regulated to second place behind Crosby for the time being.
Maybe Gary Bettman and the NHL have rammed this matchup down our throats too often, but there's a reason he picked these two squads to play each other in what has become the NHL's most hyped game of the year. Purists complain they are tired of the non-stop mainstream coverage revolving around Crosby, Ovechkin and their respective teams, but Bettman has done the right thing by making them the poster children of hockey.
While Bettman prays for suitable weather and a classic game, the Washington area is simply hoping for a favorable outcome for the team who has broken their hearts time and again. The Capitals head into January after a tough December where the team lost eight straight games, their longest losing streak since Bruce Boudreau took the reigns as head coach.
Boudreau has righted the ship, as the Caps have gone 4-0-1 since snapping out of their slump. They appear primed to once again establish themselves as serious contenders, but this time without their trademark up-tempo, full steam ahead offensive mentality.
The Capitals have gained the reputation of a soft team since their emergence in 2007. Despite their skills, it's common knowledge that Washington doesn't care much about defense. It's also well known that many of the team's best players tend to fold when the going gets tough. To break down that barrier, something needed to change, and it was apparent early in the season when the Caps continued to display the same inconsistencies as in years past.
So Boudreau made a risky gamble by attempting to morph his explosive team into a balanced unit. Two-way hockey wasn't something Ovechkin and company cared about during their rock star rise to the top of the regular season standings. But after three straight playoff failures, the coaching staff knew the style of play had to change even if it meant some midseason struggles.
The transformation has been impressive, as the Caps have allowed just 12 goals in their previous seven games and also boast the sixth best penalty killing unit in the NHL. Players like Mike Green are finally realizing the importance of playing both ends of the ice with equal intensity and the improved effort in the defensive zone is noticeable.
"We've been limiting a lot of shots and I think the reason why is we're playing aggressive," Green said. "We don't give the other team much time to make a play or whatnot and in that case then we can get the puck and move it to our forwards and have possession of the puck the majority of the game."
"It's a new way for us to play, but I think we're liking it," Boudreau added following last Tuesday's 3-0 win over Montreal, the final game before the Classic. "It was something we tried that so far has been successful against some pretty good teams and obviously the next team is pretty good too so we'll see how it works."
Green represents a microcosm of the team as a whole. He possesses enormous talent and an array of skills, but until this season he had yet to put it all together. His performance in the defensive zone was often average at best and his confidence would disappear in the blink of an eye. Mental toughness doesn't come easily to Green or many of his teammates, but they can change that within their new approach to the game. For Green, his goal scoring ability remains intact along with his newfound defensive prowess. Once the big guns like Ovechkin buy in and fully adapt to the new scheme, the offense will be able to regain some of the flow absent from their game of late, which in turn should also reignite a struggling power play.
Confidence is the X-factor for a team this good. If Washington can block out the same fragile psyche which derailed last year's promising campaign, there's no telling how far they can go. The Winter Classic is a solid measuring stick to judge where the Caps are at. The pomp and circumstance that comes along with the event also brings pressure to perform, meaning the game will test the Caps' ability to overcome adversity and prove to the critics they can play old-time hockey.
That being said, the Classic is more important to Washington than to Pittsburgh. A Caps win punctuates a strong statement that they believe in the structure Boudreau has given them and could very well propel them beyond whatever misgivings have plagued them in recent years. It may be just another regular season game for the hardened Penguins, but it's more than a memorable outdoor skate for Washington.
After a rough 2010 in DC sports, what better way to start 2011 than with a win over Pittsburgh on hockey's biggest stage? The Capitals have an opportunity to seize momentum for the stretch run on Saturday and best believe they will do everything possible to wrest bragging rights from the Penguins in front of their home crowd.
"We haven't accomplished anything yet," Green said. "There's still a lot to learn, but at least we get to play a great event like we do on Saturday so it will be exciting."