Capitals vs. Penguins Winter Classic set for Heinz Field 2011

Like the title says, Capitals vs. Penguins Winter Classic set for Heinz Field 2011, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via Yahoo's Puck Daddy blog.

I'm a huge hockey (and Penguins) fan. While this may seem more Pensburgh/Pensblog material, the fact that it's at Heinz Field makes me feel like it should register at least a weak pulse here - and we here have been scraping the bottom of the barrel for things to talk about for so long that we're starting to come up with chips of wood. Maybe it's a stretch to use that as an excuse to try to talk hockey on a Steelers forum, but I'm not about to let that stop me this time.

I must admit, I don't know how I feel about the Pens getting two Winter Classics in four years when I think there are plenty of other deserving franchises out there - the Rangers notwithstanding (I personally don't care for the mysticism of Original Six teams, so moving past that I just don't think the Rangers have the star power or playing style, let alone are good enough, to warrant inclusion in such a marquee event yet).

Canadian teams are effectively being boxed out of the Winter Classic for now while NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is focused on growing the stature of the league in the US - an update at the bottom of the Puck Daddy post mentions that the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames will have an outdoor game in February, in what will probably be marketed as a Heritage Classic redux.

The Heritage Classic was the NHL's first outdoor game back in 2003, featuring the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in Edmonton, and is very much the spiritual predecessor of the current Winter Classic, which was inaugurated in 2008 by the Buffalo Sabres and Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Since then, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings were pitted against each other at Wrigley Field in 2009, and earlier this year we had the Boston Bruins hosting the Philadelphia Flyers at Fenway Park.

The Capitals were a pretty obvious choice for Winter Classic 2011, so given Bettman's current criteria of "no Canadian teams" and my reluctance to include anyone that's already participated, these are my top 3 for who the Caps probably could/should have drawn:

1). New Jersey Devils - Why not? Well aside from their phoning in the first round this year and getting waxed by the Flyers in 5 games, why not? The last time they didn't qualify for the playoffs was the 1995-1996 season, and they have three Stanley Cups since 1995.

The NHL could've billed it as a match up between the top two Eastern Conference teams from the year before that both disgustingly underachieved and got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Ok, maybe that won't mean much to a casual fan, but I think the Devils are already easy enough to recognize by casual fans nationwide so it won't even matter. Throw Brodeur out there in the elements while he's still alive and people can pretend that they care.

2). Colorado Avalanche - They have the history and at-a-glance recognition, just like the Devils. Since moving to Denver in 1995, they made the playoffs ten years straight until their extended hiccup from 2007-2009, and got back in as the Western Conference's 8th seed this year (though their points total would've made them the Eastern Conference's 5th seed, right behind the Penguins). They're young and should improve.

But what if they don't improve? They are young and there's still a vacuum for star power and honestly leadership as well since the living legend/fossil Joe Sakic retired last year. This whole past season they did win a lot of games, but it also defied explanation as to how and why exactly they kept winning. Even the two games they took from the Sharks in the playoffs were rather fluky. They were a season-long revelation after being the league's third-worst team the year before, and it could be a coin-flip whether they put up 90+ points again and return to the playoffs, or sink back into 60-70 point anonymity and drafting top-5 again. They could be on the shortlist in a couple of years, but right now there's not enough to hype their proper return as a power, conjuring up memories of the bygone era of Patrick Roy and Sakic in his prime.

3). San Jose Sharks/Anaheim Ducks - They're both good and both have star power (though with the exception of maybe Joe Thornton, it's not likely that a casual fan can pick any of them out). San Jose won the President's Trophy for best regular season record last year, while the Ducks won the Stanley Cup three years ago, still have a fiery young nucleus that's very fun to watch, and had NINE players in the Olympics. Yes, the Ducks missed the playoffs out of the West this year, but their points total in the East would've made them the 7-seed ahead of both conference finalists Philadelphia and Montreal. And though they were just an 8-seed last year, they went the distance against the Red Wings and pushed their series all the way to a brutal game 7, so I'm perfectly fine with giving them a pass for this past season.

I'm lumping them together though because the main drawback is the same for both franchises and in all honesty is a serious deal-breaker: their hometowns (or rather the state of sunny California as a whole) are so apathetic to hockey that it would barely register a blip if they were in the big game. Either of them playing in the Classic would probably be page 3 material to a 2,000-word page 1 analysis of Kobe/Odom/Gasol being caught watching Sex and the City 2 during a guys night in. Along the same vein, I don't think Sharks/Ducks fans travel well. Or at all. They are both Western Conference teams too - while it may be too early to tell for sure, the NHL seems to be switching off between all-Eastern/all-Western matchups in the Winter Classic, so I guess this goes against the Avalanche too.

But all of this is a moot point since Bettman wanted the faces of his league to square off again. So let's talk location.

Is Heinz Field the best place for it?

I feel pretty confident in saying the NFL likely already knew (or at the very least strongly suspected) a Caps/Pens matchup was coming since the Steelers are conveniently away that weekend to close out the regular season at Cleveland. The Redskins are at home hosting the Giants in their regular season finale, so FedEx is out of the question. But probably more important, DC weather can be so fickle that trying to keep a sheet of ice outside could easily be a major pain in the ass at best, and as such the game would have to be away from DC (and I can spare myself any delusions of possibly being able to make it there to see it in person).

My concern about the game being at Heinz Field is what if the Steelers host a Wildcard game? Granted I think we're more likely to be on the road in the Wildcard round if we make the playoffs given the suspension, but nonetheless, what if we happen to come through and win the division? (I'll leave it to someone else to try to argue "we'll definitely get a bye")

I'm sure the NHL's finest will be there to make sure the rink and ice are flawless, but what's going to be the effect on the field itself? Despite the best precautions and the countless measures that will surely be taken, I have a hard time believing that there will be no effect at all on the field underneath with what I presume will be heavy duty equipment bringing all the crap in and then hauling it back out again. With all the flak that we have taken in the past for the (poor) condition of our grass, I could see this turning into a potential issue.

But if NOT Heinz Field, where else could it be? PNC Park is a gorgeous venue and I would love to see it in person (the last time I was in Pittsburgh was the last season of Three Rivers Stadium). It's out of season so the Pirates wouldn't really care. But the NHL has already played the "historic baseball venue" card the past two years, and they're not about to try to play another "cool baseball venue" card to make it three years running (let alone choose to stage it in the home of a team that hasn't finished above .500 since... yeah...). Then there's the clear discrepancy in seating that Heinz also wins handily.

Pittsburgh made history by becoming the first city to be the home of the Vince Lombardi Trophy and Lord Stanley's Cup at the same time, and I do like the idea of plugging that angle before we're any farther removed from it. But I'm still not fully behind it because there's another venue that I love even more for a Caps/Pens matchup:

Beaver Stadium, University Park, PA

Follow me on this. It's a historic venue - everyone knows Penn State - that doesn't duplicate something already done in the Winter Classic. It's more than a month after the Nittany Lions regular season schedule ends, and though conversion might still affect the football team depending on what bowl they're in, it should still be kept to a minimum. Paterno is still around and everyone loves Papa Joe. It's still convenient from both Pittsburgh and Washington. Hershey and Wilkes-Barre are even closer now, and you could have an earlier game between the respective AHL affiliates - Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins - to prime the pump for the big boys game. Beaver Stadium's capacity of 107,000 dwarfs Heinz Field's 65,000.

The downside is whether State College could handle the influx of that many fans for the game, which I doubt it could. But nonetheless, I think a Winter Classic at Beaver Stadium would've been pretty awesome.

What do you guys think?

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