Blackhawks ready to take it outside vs the Caps in the Winter Classic

There hasn't been a tremendous amount of early buzz surrounding this year's Winter Classic, which will feature the Chicago Blackhawks (25-10-2) visiting the Washington Capitals (18-11-7) at Nationals Park in D.C.

It's hard to miss the advertising, though; NBC has definitely been saturating all their markets.

This season, the NHL changed partners to present its The Road to the Winter Classic show; instead of HBO, it is EPIX carrying the torch. As the station is not available in all markets or with all providers, fans can watch the show unedited on EPIX's website, NHL.com, the team websites, or catch it censored (bleep bleep bleeeeeep) on NBCSN.

This week's episode featured both players and coaches celebrating the holidays. We got to see Niklas Hjalmarsson and other Swedes from the Blackhawks celebrating with a traditional julbord at a Chicago Swedish restaurant. We saw coach Joel Quenneville and his family taking their traditional Christmas ski trip, and the Capitals' Joel Ward head to NYC for the holiday. Episode 3 mingled enough personal time to make watchers feel more engaged with the players with more excellent game coverage.

Fans' opinions may vary about the series, but one of the best things about this year's version of The Road to the Winter Classic is that they choose not to hype up any kind of artificial rivalry between the teams. The Blackhawks and Capitals play in different conferences, and see each other at most twice per season (pre-game seasons notwithstanding). There is no natural rivalry to speak of, but there are storylines to be had.

The strongest connection between these two teams is one of the players now on the Capitals, Troy Brouwer. Brouwer, now 29, was drafted by the Blackhawks in 2004 - the same draft class that saw Alex Ovechkin go first overall to Washington. Brouwer played for two AHL affiliates for the Blackhawks (Norfolk Admirals, Rockford IceHogs) before making his permanent leap to the NHL for the 2008-09 season. The following year, he would win the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks. He would play one more season for Chicago before being traded at the 2011 Draft, for a pick that would become Phillip Danault (#26 overall for the Blackhawks).

Brouwer has now played in over 200 games for both teams, and still makes Chicago his home during the off season. No doubt that he would like to achieve with Washington what he did with Chicago: win the Stanley Cup.

Ten other players who have played for the Blackhawks at one time or another were also a part of that draft class, and two of them are still active with Chicago: Bryan Bickell and Kris Versteeg.

It's the second Winter Classic for both teams, although it's the third outdoor game for the Blackhawks, who played in one of last season's Stadium Series games. Chicago's Kris Versteeg will hope to score in Wednesday's game. He already has the honor of being the only Blackhawk who has scored a goal at the United Center, Wrigley Field, and Soldier Field. If he scores a goal at Nationals Park, he will have the unique honor of having a hat trick of goals between the Blackhawks' three outdoor games.

While the players are aware that all the spectacle surrounding the game is primarily for the fans, they've taken the time to enjoy the excitement of the experience, and share the special experience with groups like the USA Warriors. It's a change of scenery - literally - in the middle of a long season. It's something fun and different that harkens back to days of playing pond shinny as a kid.

At the end of the day, while ultimately they're more focused on the two points in the standings that the game represents, they will still savor the honor and privilege that participating in the Winter Classic affords them.

Nationals Park has a beautiful setup for the game. With a strong nod to its host city's architecture, the players will begin the game by skating out on a minature Mall backed by the Capitol building. The 2015 Winter Classic will enjoy good weather - something that may actually delay the start of the game from the scheduled 1pm ET / 12pm CT start. Clear skies may result in intense sun glare on the ice. While a touch of snow flurries makes things fun, it's less enjoyable to play through a blizzard - and it's downright miserable to be a fan suffering through 13° weather and non-stop snow like last year's crowd did.

Coming into Wednesday's game, both teams have been playing well. The Blackhawks are now number one in the Central division and second overall in the league, behind the Anaheim Ducks. While the Blackhawks lost to the Capitals 3-2 on November 7th, they have had a .782 winning percentage in the games since.

Likewise, the Capitals have played well in the same stretch, and they currently sit in the second wild card position in the Eastern conference, one point ahead of Boston with two games in hand. Coach Trotz called the Blackhawks "the gold standard" of teams in the NHL, noting not only their on-ice success, but also factors like their popularity among fans, and the way that the franchise treats its players and staff. The Caps players also recognize what makes the Blackhawks special, and aim to reach the same level of play, team culture, and leadership.

In the meantime, the Blackhawks and the Capitals are going to head outside on Wednesday afternoon for some competitive hockey to kick off 2015 in style.

Time: 1pm ET / 12pm CT (subject to change due to weather)

Where to watch / listen: NBC (all US markets); Radio: Chicago - WGN 720 AM; DC: 106.7 The Fan, 1500 WFED, Capitals Radio Network, Capitals Mobile App

 

 

 

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