Well, it’s finally here.
We are less than 24 hours from puck drop at Nationals Park for the NHL’s Annual Winter Classic, sponsored by Bridgestone, between the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks.
For those following along on EPIX in Ross Greenberg’s Road to the Winter Classic, you’ve watched two highly skilled teams orchestrated behind the bench by two very upfront coaches, in Barry Trotz and Joel Quennville.
Washington’s off season coaching change along with the personnel moves they’ve made on defense (via new GM Brian MacLellan) have propelled this club to an 8-2-3 December, and major cause for optimism, as I chronicled on Sunday.
The Caps are hot, but in this match up they are facing the best team in the NHL in the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks are led by Jonathan Toews, who has won two Stanley Cups and two Olympic Gold Medals in the last four years. He’s arguably the best player in the NHL, depending on who you talk to. Add to Towes the likes of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook and it’s easy to see why this club is so good and narrowly missed winning Cup number three last year (they were knocked out by the Los Angeles Kings in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in OT).
Chicago is talented, structured, and disciplined. They are everything the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin want to become on a consistent basis. Under Trotz, the Capitals are making steps towards that, but they are still a work in progress.
So let’s talk about Thursday’s game, which based on the weather conditions, may see a 60 to 90 minute delay due to weather. It’s not precipitation or temperature, but the sun that could cause the delay. With the shadows not covering the ice until roughly 2:30 pm, the potential for injuries due to glare (someone not seeing a puck properly) or bad ice (the sun can make the surface uneven) are much higher at the scheduled start time of 1 pm.
Now to the match up. The big question in Caps land is will Washington’s top left handed defensemen and major physical presence, Brooks Orpik, play after suffering a right knee injury on Monday?
Orpik did not skate during the normal team practice Wednesday at Nationals Park, but he did at Kettler Ice Plex in the morning, per a video shot by a fan that the super Capitals blog, Russian Machine Never Breaks, obtained. From that video, it’s apparent that Orpik could likely play, as he was moving well, but he’ll be a game time decision.
If Orpik is out, then Nate Schmidt goes into Orpik’s slot next to John Carlson, who by the way is having a very quiet monster season. #74 is fourth in the NHL in scoring by defensemen with four goals and 23 assists. He’s also a team leading +14! Yes, the 2010 American hero in the IIHF World Junior Championships has actually improved on last year’s super Olympic team making season playing alongside the steady and snarly Orpik. So hopefully Orpik’s absence, if it occurs, does not impact Carlson, as well.
Trotz routinely puts Carlson and Orpik against the opponents top line, so the question now becomes which D pair, if 44 is out, does he go with against the Toews-Kane line? My guess is he may switch that to the Matt Niskanen-Karl Alzner duo.
Up front, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been DOMINATING on their shifts in puck possession in recent weeks and they are due for a big game on the scoresheet. Does it come Thursday against Chicago?
To win, I really think that 8 and 19 will have to carry the day and Braden Holtby will need to be his usual stellar self, especially if Orpik doesn’t play.
As chronicled over at another great Caps web site, Japers Rink, the Caps power play is in a recent funk and needs to snap out of it to aid the Caps chances of beating the mighty Blackhawks.
The Caps have also been getting solid production from the line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward.
Chicago is a great team and they bring four good lines. Washington will need their second scoring line and their fourth line to be near their best to get a victory.
This game on New Year’s Day is only for two points, but let’s be honest, it’s a huge deal and the players will approach it like a playoff one.
It’s the NHL’s regular season signature event and a can’t miss one for hockey fans.