PITTSBURGH — Turn on the lights at Heinz Field. The stage is getting even brighter for Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and everyone else participating in the Winter Classic.
Faced with an ominous weather forecast that includes rain and warm temperatures, the NHL decided to push back the start of Saturday’s game between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins to 8 p.m. ET.
The decision was greeted favourably by both teams. It will allow players accustomed to playing in the evening the chance to fall into a normal routine.
"It’s better," Ovechkin said Friday. "We have a game almost every time (in the evening). It’s going to be OK because you can sleep. You can eat normal food like steaks, spaghetti and just take a nap before the game.
"You can celebrate New Year’s too."
Added Crosby: "I don’t see anything wrong with playing under the lights here. I think that’d be pretty nice. We should all be enjoying ourselves no matter what the scenario."
By making the decision a day early, the league also gave the 68,000 fans who will pack the home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers plenty of time to adjust their plans. Instead of having to arrive at the stadium in the early morning, tailgaters will now get the chance to set up shop all afternoon.
It should create a party-like atmosphere rarely seen at a NHL game. Buzz about the event has steadily been building for months in Pittsburgh, which has been flooded by fans in hockey sweaters.
"Since we got here, since training camp, I think everyone’s been talking about it," said Crosby. "People here are pretty excited to host it and have it here in Pittsburgh. We have a ton of support and they’re very deserving of this chance. …
"I expect tomorrow to be pretty special."
In making the time change, the NHL said that it expects rain to fall in the afternoon before tapering off in the evening. There is still a possibility that the game could be delayed by bad weather or even pushed back to Sunday — decisions that would fall to commissioner Gary Bettman.
"As coaches and players, we don’t care if we go at midnight," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. "Let’s get it going."
Just like in years past, two full periods must be played before the game is considered official.
The sense of occasion started to sink in for players on Friday as both the Penguins and Capitals had a chance to practice on the temporary ice surface for the first time. There were smiles all around as they looked around at the distinctive yellow seats and large scoreboard behind the south endzone at Heinz Field.
"Everyone has a little bit more fun outside," said Capitals defenceman John Carlson. "It brings you back a little bit. It’s pretty cool. The guys are going on the ice and you see smiles from everyone — everyone’s making fun of each other because the ice is so bad and they’re tripping up over themselves.
"It’s all fun."
Max Talbot led the Penguins on the ice and pumped his fist towards the roughly 10,000 fans who were allowed in to watch the team practice. The players heard chants of "Let’s go Pens! Let’s go Pens!" while being put through drills.
"It was an exciting day," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "I’d put it up there with a lot of my best experiences in hockey. I had a great time."
This is the fourth straight year the NHL has taken its game outdoors on New Year’s Day. The main thing that separates this game from the previous ones is the presence of its two most marketable players and arguably the teams that currently enjoy the fiercest rivalry.
The bad blood has been captured wonderfully by HBO’s all-access "24/7" series, which will climax with Saturday’s game. The players expect it to be as physical and intense a battle as they’ve had.
"It’s not going to be an all-star game out there," said Talbot.
The Penguins have steadily climbed the NHL standings with a 19-2-2 run over the past month and a half — a stretch that included a 3-2 shootout victory in Washington on Dec. 23. The team could receive a boost with the return of centre Jordan Staal, who has yet to play this season because of foot and ankle injuries. He skated again Friday and will be a game-time decision.
Washington endured an eight-game winless slide in December, but has been better of late with victories in four of its last five. The Caps sit just four points back of Pittsburgh and would love to creep a little bit closer.
However, the Winter Classic is more than just another regular-season game. It has grown into the NHL’s biggest spectacle — and both teams are eager to make an statement during their time in the spotlight.
"In the end it’s about two points, but let’s not make a mistake," said Boudreau. "We’re all people that want the game of hockey to grow and this is a big deal. To be part of this is very lucky and in five years you’re going to sit back and (reflect on it). …
"If we can help build hockey in the U.S. and in Canada and all over the world by putting on a great show for these people, it’s more than two points. It’s worth a lot more."