March 3 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: FAN 106.7, Capitals Radio 24/7
Toronto Maple Leafs 39-20-7
Washington Capitals 36-21-7
For many of us, our first introduction to the game of hockey was outdoors, whether it was a backyard rink, a frozen river or pond, or an outdoor community rink replete with amenities such as a fireplace and hot cocoa. Only at the higher, organized levels of hockey was the game played indoors, so a lot of us fell in love with the game in its most pristine state, outdoors with all of nature as the backdrop.
It’s been a decade now since the NHL first took the game outside, eventually expanding its Winter Classic franchise to include the Heritage Classic and Stadium Series brands as well, and this Saturday night the Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs will take it outside, playing under the stars at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, the third outdoors game for both of these franchises.
“When you’re skating on a pond or you’re skating outside,” says Caps winger T.J. Oshie, “it turns into pure joy and fun, so I’m hoping that we get that on Saturday.”
Oshie is one of a handful of Caps who will be playing outdoors for the first time on Saturday. He’s fairly excited at the opportunity.
“Yeah, I was pretty jealous,” he says, of watching all of the NHL’s previous outdoors endeavors. “It always looked pretty cool. I always thought the 24/7 [TV series] that they used to do from the Winter Classic – I don’t know if they still do it – I thought that was really sweet leading up to it. It almost brought out a really dramatic side of hockey that you don’t really feel when you’re playing, with the way they presented it. Yeah, always jealous and I’m really excited to get out there and have my first experience out there with all my family watching.”
Speaking of first experiences outdoors, Oshie’s recollection of his own is a treasure. Born in Washington state, Oshie first skated outdoors when he visited relatives in Minnesota as a youth.
“I do know that I came out to Warroad [Minn.] – I think it was the 1994-95 high school season – and my uncle Henry had a rink on his back yard,” recalls Oshie. “I remember one night I woke up and I was too excited to skate. I think it was 3 a.m., I was young, I went out and put on my skates and went out there for about five hours before everyone woke up. That was my first real experience on an outdoor rink, and it’s been that fun ever since.”
The uncle Henry to which Oshie refers is none other than Henry Boucha, a former member of the U.S. National Team and the U.S. Olympic Team. Boucha also enjoyed a six-year career in the NHL with Detroit, Minnesota, Kansas City and Colorado, and spent a season with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA. Boucha was a cult figure in the NHL in those days, mainly because he wore a headband in that era before helmets were mandatory.
Washington’s previous outdoor experiences include a pair of victories in previous Winter Classics, on New Year’s Day of 2011 over the Penguins at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and on New Year’s Day of 2015 over the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park in Washington.
Weather could be a factor in Saturday’s game, as high winds have invaded the area ahead of the contest, forcing the stadium crew to take the glass down as a precaution on Thursday. Winds should die down a bit by Saturday, but could play a role in the game. The NHL released a statement late Friday afternoon, saying that preparations continue for the game, and it is still on for 8 p.m. on Saturday. But there won’t be a morning skate at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and the League will issue an updated statement by 1:30 p.m. ET.
Washington’s first outdoor game in Pittsburgh had to be rescheduled from an afternoon contest to a night game because of rain, and the standing water on the ice was certainly a detriment to making passes and handling the puck.
“The first one was obviously different and we had to delay it to a night game,” recalls Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “We were going to play it at 1, and I think we moved it to 7. It’s obviously harder with the weather.
"The thing is, when the weather is like that, it’s the same for both teams so it doesn’t matter. It matters more for the fans, I think, if it will be a good game or an okay game. That game against Chicago, I felt like the ice was pretty good and it was a good atmosphere there at Nats Park, so that was great.”
This year’s outdoor game is obviously later in the season, just as the stretch drive is getting underway rather than at the midpoint of the campaign like the previous two.
“It has a different feel to it,” says Niskanen, referring to the timing during the season of Saturday’s game. “It’s still a special occasion. It’s not going to feel like a normal game, but it counts the same. We definitely want to win, but we want to enjoy it, too.”
Toronto and the Caps will close out their season’s series on Saturday in Annapolis. The Leafs earned a 2-0 win over the Caps in Washington on Oct. 17, but the Caps returned the favor just over a month later in Toronto. Alex Ovechkin recorded a hat trick in the Capitals’ 4-2 win over the Leafs in the Big Smoke on Nov. 25.
The Leafs are coming into Saturday’s game on a heater; they’re 14-3-2 in their last 19 games despite dropping each of their last two (0-0-2), a 4-3 shootout loss at Tampa Bay on Monday and a 3-2 overtime setback on the opposite side of the Sunshine State a night later. Toronto has won only one of its last five road games (1-2-2).
Toronto made one move at the trade deadline, but it’s a potentially significant one. The Leafs obtained veteran center Tomas Plekanec from Montreal, a grizzled two-way pivot who fits best in the bottom six at this stage of his career. Having played nearly 1,000 games – 981, to be exact – with the Habs, Plekanec now finds himself with his former team’s greatest rival.
The Leafs are loaded with high end, young scoring talent, but the addition of Plekanec gives them a defensive anchor and makes them a more formidable foe for whichever opponent Toronto draws in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Leafs and for fans of the game, Toronto is currently without one of the game’s brightest young stars in Auston Matthews, who is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury. Matthews had four goals and five points in the six-game playoff series between the Capitals and the Maple Leafs last spring, and he has totaled a goal and four points in five regular season games against Washington.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock was philosophical about the possibility of wind impacting Saturday’s game, and he had a rather brilliant take on what these outdoor games mean to players and their families.
“[Saturday] we're going to get up, there's going to be no wind, and we're going to have a good game [Saturday] night. That's the way it's going to be. These things have a way of working themselves out just fine.
“In some ways it’s disappointing for the family skate. The family skate outdoors is one of most special things you can have. We're having dinner right now with all the players families and friends, and it's spectacular. You get to meet them and get to know who they are, and understand why their kids are the way their kids are. It's a fantastic opportunity to share your career and what you do with your folks. It's no different than a father's trip.”
The Caps just completed their fathers’ trip two weeks ago, and many of those dads – and other family members – are here for Saturday’s game. In lieu of a cancelled family skate outdoors at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Friday, the Capitals held a family skate at Kettler on Friday afternoon after their practice session.