Winter Classic 2011: Penguins, Capitals brace for rain

The Capitals took their practice outside, to the rink at the Chevy Chase Country Club, in preparation for the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh this weekend.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 12:04 AM

Despite weather forecasts calling for rain on New Year's Day in Pittsburgh, NHL officials remained optimistic Monday that the Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will be played as scheduled at Heinz Field.

"We will do everything humanly possible to play this game on Saturday," NHL executive vice president of events Don Renzulli said, adding that weather concerns have been an issue leading up to each of the three previous Winter Classics.

If conditions, particularly steady rain or downpours, compromise the ice surface - and subsequently, player safety - or threaten to significantly disrupt the flow of the game, the NHL and its television partners can delay the start of the contest until as late as 8 p.m. In the event of a complete postponement on Saturday, the game could be moved to a noon start on Sunday. If the game cannot take place on either date, it will be rescheduled for later in the season at Consol Energy Center, where the Penguins play.

Weather reports on Monday forecasted a high temperature between 44 and 50 degrees on Saturday with a 50 percent chance of rain. Sunday is expected to have a high roughly 10 degrees cooler, with a smaller chance of precipitation that could include a mix of snow and rain. The average high temperature on New Year's Day in Pittsburgh is 36 degrees.

This week, while crews are constructing the rink and building the ice surface at Heinz Field, league officials have been receiving weather updates twice a day from a local forecasting firm in Bridgeville, Pa., a suburb about 13 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. When the annual outdoor showcase is 48 hours away, they will receive daily updates on rain patterns and begin taking any contingency plans seriously into account if necessary, Renzulli said.

Any decision to delay, postpone or move the Winter Classic from the upcoming weekend would be made by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who would meet with representatives from the Capitals and Penguins, the NHL Players Association and members of the league's hockey operations staff before any changes would be agreed upon.

The possible unseasonably warm conditions are not a paramount concern, said Dan Craig, who is the rink architect for each Winter Classic. The refrigeration trailer the league uses keeps the ice surface at an ideal playing temperature below freezing, Craig said.

Consistent rain is another matter, though, because it could compromise player safety. Downpours would lessen visibility for the players, as well as create puddles that would freeze and lead to an uneven playing surface.

"Everybody is going to meet and everybody is going to have their weigh-in on the safety of the players and the ice quality," Craig said. "Yes, the ice quality is a major topic. I'll weigh in on it and I'll put my expertise on the table and the commissioner will make this decision from that point."

In the inaugural Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2008, between the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, there were frequent stoppages for the ice crew to shovel away snow and patch holes in the playing surface. Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said he wasn't sure if there would be any advantage to having previously played outdoors.

"I think everyone has an idea that there may be stoppages or there may be times when the ice is slower. Whatever the case is, I think that's to be expected," Crosby said during a conference call with reporters Monday. "Whether or not you've played in one before, I don't know if it's an advantage. I think for everything around it, it may be a bit of an advantage just because we've been through it. But as far as dealing with conditions and things like that, I think both teams probably expect the same thing."

Capitals notes: Washington Coach Bruce Boudreau said he does not expect defenseman Tom Poti, who suffered a head injury on Dec. 23, to play against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday at Verizon Center. . . . Veteran forward Boyd Gordon, who missed the past six games, will have stitches removed from his infected right foot Tuesday but Boudreau said his status will remain day-to-day. . . . Defenseman Jeff Schultz is still hoping to return to the lineup for the Winter Classic after missing nine games since fracturing his thumb on Dec. 6. Schultz has participated fully in Washington's four most recent practices at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

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