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 goaltender.
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.
Saturday’s Winter Classic outdoor game pairing Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins and Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals was switched Friday from an afternoon start to 8 p.m. EST 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 drops.
“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 Saturday night, even if there are unexpected delays, if only because a Sunday game would go head-to-head against regular season-ending 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 it 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. “When he (Crosby) is doing is more impressive than what I did years ago.”
At least this season, Crosby has eclipsed Ovechkin, who has slumped for extended stretches and is currently tied for sixth with 42 points.
While Crosby isn’t scoring like Gretzky did during his 215-point season or Lemieux did during a 199-point season, the game has changed.
“He’s been incredible all year,” Lemieux said. “What he did with the 25 games with a point, that’s pretty hard to do in this day and age. It’s not the same as it was 20 years ago. You have good goalies and good defensemen who can skate. Defensive schemes are very good compared to 20 years ago. It’s much tougher to dominate now. … That’s why he is the best in the world.”
It’s also why Crosby is playing in the Winter Classic for the second time in four seasons, even as numerous other teams clamor for an invitation.
Crosby and Ovechkin met in a classic playoff series two seasons ago, won by the Penguins in seven games, and the two stars were considered then to be on a near-equal footing. From 2006-09, Ovechkin was the league’s No. 1 scorer with 314 points and Crosby was fourth with 295.
Since Crosby’s Canada ousted Ovechkin’s Russia during the Vancouver Olympics in February, the dynamics have changed. Crosby has eclipsed Ovechkin, outscoring him 96-62.
“What Sid’s able to do every night, every shift … is much more impressive than what we did years ago,” Lemieux said. “He’s gotten better and better every year he’s been in the league.”
The Penguins, No. 1 in the overall standings, and the Capitals, who trail them by only four points, also have some of the NHL’s top complementary players.
Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin is a former scoring champion, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the league’s best for six weeks and the Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin have long tormented the Penguins.
Washington swept four games from Pittsburgh while winning the NHL regular-season title last season, but both teams were bounced from the playoffs by Montreal.
So although the Winter Classic isn’t hockey’s version of the Super Bowl — only two points in the standings are determined, not a champion — it’s as close as the sport gets to a one-day spectacle. Or, now, a nighttime spectacle.
The carefully crafted ice got a workout during Friday’s alumni game, and players said it was firm and consistent despite temperatures in the high 40s and sunshine.
“Everybody knows this is going to be special,” Penguins forward Matt Cooke said.