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Capitals get first taste of the great outdoors before Winter Classic

By Greg Schimmel
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 12:18 AM

Alex Ovechkin practiced with a thick ring of eye black circling his mouth, and another thick streak beneath his eyes and across the bridge of his nose.

"Just to have fun, like laugh," the Washington Capitals left wing said afterward. "Try to make a joke."

The outrageous look personified the enthusiastic approach the Capitals took to the rink at the Chevy Chase Club on Wednesday afternoon, when they held their first outdoor practice session in preparation for Saturday's Winter Classic against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field.

The roughly hour-long practice in front of a few hundred fans helped the Capitals get oriented to outdoor conditions and heightened their anticipation for the NHL's marquee midseason game.

After Tuesday night's 3-0 win over Montreal at Verizon Center, no more games stand between the Capitals and the Winter Classic, allowing them to focus completely on their foray into the outdoors.

"We've been looking forward to this all year, since they announced it," defenseman Mike Green said. "It couldn't come quick enough, and now here we are, playing the game on Saturday. I know everybody is excited."

The Capitals ran a strenuous practice and went through regular drills Wednesday, but there was a sense of exuberance for the players and coaches to be skating outside on the 46-degree afternoon.

Players yelped and hollered when they first entered the ice, and many hit slap shots off the end boards to startle members of the crowd.

Coach Bruce Boudreau wore a white wool hat with red and blue stripes - "Nothing I put on is going to make me look any better," he said when asked about his gameday attire - while several players in addition to Ovechkin experimented with the eye black.

Most players had the traditional swatch under each eye to fight the glare of the sun, but others, including forward Matt Hendricks and defenseman John Carlson, drew thick triangles under both eyes.

"Today is the day to experiment with that stuff," Boudreau said. "We had a couple of ultimate warriors out there."

Weekend forecasts in Pittsburgh call for possible showers that could potentially threaten the scheduled timing of the game, but the glaring sun during Wednesday's practice session created a challenge. Players were constantly squinting as the reflection of the sun off of the ice became difficult to handle.

"The main thing was dealing with the glare," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We all tried this eye black. It doesn't really work that well to fend against it, so we're going to have to try something different."

The wind also impacted the outdoor session, as even a slight breeze going with or against a player could affect skating speed.

Forecasts say it is not supposed to be particularly windy in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but small gusts can still make a difference, and Boudreau ran his players through sprints at the end of the practice to let them experience that effect.

"I wanted to skate them a little bit to see if the wind affects" them, Boudreau said. "It's amazing, going one way against even a two mile per hour wind is a little bit different."

Boudreau said he personally needed to adjust to the unusual atmosphere presented by an outdoor rink, where the noise and vibe are different from inside an arena.

It was difficult to perceive how hard the players were working in the open surroundings, he said, and it was strangely quiet without the usual echoes.

The Capitals will return indoors to practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Thursday before they leave for Pittsburgh, and they will practice outdoors again at Heinz Field on Friday in anticipation of Saturday's game.

Overall, the Capitals said, their first outdoor experience was a positive one.

"It's a lot of fun," Alzner said. "That's what we were talking about the whole time. We wish the whole season was played outdoors."

Capitals notes: Marcus Johansson (undisclosed injury) skated with his teammates for the first time this week. The rookie center, along with Mathieu Perreault (broken nose), will be ready to play Saturday, Boudreau said. "We wouldn't have sent [Andrew] Gordon and [Keith] Aucoin down if we didn't think they were ready," he added. . . .

Boudreau also said defenseman Tom Poti (head injury) will be ready to go.

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