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Winter Classic huge for Pens, Caps, NHL -- if they play

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- Since they play in the same conference, the NHL never will realize its dream of seeing Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin face off in a Stanley Cup Final.

So this is the next best thing.

Actually it may even be better for the league to have its two biggest stars meeting in the Winter Classic, the annual regular-season clash that has become the league's signature event and biggest single money-maker, especially since it happens at a time of year when most people think hockey should be played.

"For sure it kind of takes you back to your roots," Penguins forward Max Talbot said.

Washington's Alex Ovechkin pauses during practice at Heinz Field. (US Presswire)  
Washington's Alex Ovechkin pauses during practice at Heinz Field. (US Presswire)  
More important, it gives the NHL the kind of captive audience that it rarely has for the title series in June. Aside from hangover recovery, New Year's Day is generally about sitting home and watching sports. OK, so it's mostly about watching college football. However, with bowl games already weeks into its lengthy TV run and the biggest clash still several days away, something different has a chance to stand out.

And the Winter Classic stands out, as it has since the first experimental game in 2008. The setting in Buffalo’s Rich Stadium with a light snow falling was an idyllic backdrop, and drew 3.75 million American viewers, an almost unheard of number for an NHL game. Nearly one million more watched each of the next two games in Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park, and the numbers for this year’s game at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field could top that.

If the game gets off on time, or at all. Unseasonable weather in the Steel City has become a serious concern with forecasts calling for game-time temperatures of nearly 50 degrees, and more problematic, with rain. The NHL has already pushed the game back seven hours to an 8 p.m. start on Saturday, according to Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner.

If all goes well, it will be the first of the four Winter Classics to be played at night. If not, the NHL has further contingency plans, including one that would push it back to Sunday at noon. But then it would face NFL pregame show competition. And at 1 p.m., the game between the Steelers and Cleveland Browns has playoff implications for the hometown team.

The worst-case scenario is to reschedule the game for indoors later in the season.

"It doesn’t look good, but the weather can change and hopefully we can get it in," Penguins owner Mario Lemieux said. "With all the excitement leading up to this weekend it would be a shame not to play tomorrow."

More so because these are two of the league's best teams playing a game that counts, something that tends to get lost in all the hype leading up to it. Both teams are in tight races for their division crowns and by time the season draws to a close, they could very well be fighting it out for the conference title.

"The only way this will be a really good memory is if we come out with a win," Washington defenseman Karl Alzner said. "This is going to be a very big game."

And an intense one, given the animosity these teams have developed and because of the way both teams have played lately. Pittsburgh has dropped a couple of games since the Christmas break ended -- one in a shootout -- but the Penguins had a 12-game winning streak earlier in the month with Crosby putting together a recently-snapped 25-game point streak. Meanwhile the Caps broke an eight-game winless streak by winning four of their past five, with the only loss in shootout last week to Pittsburgh.

"Obviously the rivalry thing makes this big on its own, but there are two points at stake and you can't overlook that," Washington forward Brooks Laich said. "That said, this is going to be a very different experience and I think we all realize that."

They’re not alone.

"I'm a lot more into the Steelers than hockey, but I've seen a few Penguins games and this is something I’m not going to miss,” cabbie Mark Doman said. "I mean look just look around. Everywhere you go you see the Winter Classic flags and things. People are really excited and talking about this because they know it's something special."

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