In a few hours the Capitals and Penguins will clomp out of the long tunnels at Heinz Field and glide onto the ice for the Winter Classic, by far most anticipated regular-season game of their NHL careers. The Caps will get jeered by most – yet still have a contingent of supporters that could fill Verizon Center.

The Penguins will be cheered by a crowd few hockey players have ever seen before. And there will be several thousand neutral fans, too. I met one man in the elevator this afternoon at the media hotel who said he actually drove in from Indiana this morning and just wanted to see a great game. In short – the atmosphere should be incredible. And everyone involved knows it.  

“It’s just awesome. You take in the stadium, you take in the air,” Caps forward Jason Chimera said about walking onto the ice surface on Friday afternoon before there were any fans in the stands. “You look up and don’t see anything except the sky so it’s a pretty cool feeling. When you get 70,000 people added to it it’s going to be even cooler. It’s going to be fun. Just got to take it all in because it’s a great event.”

Maybe we won’t get the snow globe effect they had in Buffalo three years ago when the Penguins played the Sabres in the inaugural Winter Classic and it snowed during the game. But the weather delay to 8 p.m. means we do get hockey at night, under the lights. The weather should be crisper, more like winter. Friday afternoon – with its direct sunlight and warm temperatures – didn’t give off that vibe the NHL so desperately craves. But to a man these players – even guys like Brooks Laich, who long tried to downplay the experience as just another game – have bought into it. In this event everything is new even to grizzled NHL veterans. Even the way you hit the ice is different.

“The walk is a long way. It’s a 2 1/2 minute walk out there to get up and down stairs,” Laich said. “I was hoping they were just going to make that [all] ice and you could – swoosh – skate it or something or have like a tow rope like they do on a ski hill.”

And of course, the biggest difference of all is the crowd. The largest arena in the NHL is in Montreal and Heinz Field will triple Bell Center’s normal attendance. It’s hard enough to win on the road in this league. Will a big goal swing the momentum Pittsburgh’s way? Do the expected 20,000 Washington fans stem that tide somewhat?     

“No one has ever played in front of a crowd like this before,” said Caps defenseman John Carlson. “It’s going to be a lot of people. It’s going to be pretty overwhelming. At the same time we’ve got to bring ourselves back down to earth. It’s two points and it’s a big two points against a rival. We’re coming off a losing streak and we’re trying to build ourselves back up to where we were before that so we can’t give up any games or any points – whether its inside or outside.”

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