Winter Classic moved to 8 p.m. because of threat of rain

By Alan Robinson
Associated Press / January 1, 2011

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PITTSBURGH — Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux never took their can-you-top-this rivalry outdoors, back to the purest form of hockey played on ponds instead of indoor palaces. Where whipping winds and a frozen shooting hand can influence the result as much as a hot goalie.

So this must do: Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin, the sport’s two biggest names and rivals in every sense, playing the NHL’s showcase regular-season game — and in prime time.

Today’s Winter Classic outdoor game at Heinz Field pairing Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins and Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals was switched yesterday from an afternoon start to 8 p.m. to avoid predicted rain.

The league wanted to avoid starting the game at the scheduled 1 p.m., only to have to repeatedly stop it before the weather front passes in late afternoon and the temperatures drop.

“We’re talking low 40s, more of a winter setting [at night],’’ NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “So we’re looking forward to a fine time.’’

Players from both teams welcomed the switch.

“We practiced outdoors a couple of days ago and the glare of the sun is terrible,’’ Capitals forward David Steckel said. “Under the lights, it will be that much better.’’

Ovechkin was happy for a different reason: No early-morning wake-up call on New Year’s morning.

“You can sleep, you can eat normal food, steaks and spaghetti, and take a nap,’’ he said. “You can celebrate New Year’s, too.’’

Crosby also likes the idea of a nighttime game, which could boost NBC’s ratings.

“I don’t see anything wrong with playing under the lights here,’’ Crosby said. “I think that’d be pretty nice. We should all be enjoying ourselves no matter what the scenario.’’

The league insists it’s planning to play tonight, even if there are unexpected delays, if only because a Sunday game would go head-to-head against regular-season NFL games. It also wouldn’t be played on the preferred New Year’s Day.

“As coaches and players, we don’t care if we go at midnight,’’ Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Let’s go.’’

None of the first three Winter Classics in Buffalo, Chicago or Boston were disrupted by the weather, but the NHL understood the inherent risk in taking an indoor game into the great outdoors.

“It’s part of what makes the game great,’’ NHL chief operating officer John Collins said.

To Lemieux, so do Crosby and Ovechkin, the feature attractions whenever the game starts. Crosby is scoring at a rate unseen since Lemieux had 161 points in the 1995-96 season; Crosby’s 25-game scoring streak ended Wednesday but, with 65 points in 39 games, he’s on pace for 137 points.

“It’s two different styles, two different eras but guys who are great players,’’ Lemieux said. “What [Crosby] is doing is more impressive than what I did years ago.’’

Crosby has eclipsed Ovechkin this season, who has slumped for extended stretches and has 42 points.

Penguins forward Jordan Staal, out all season while recovering from an infected foot and a broken hand, could return for the game, although he will be a game-time decision.

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