A Look Ahead to the Winter Classic

Posted December 29, 2010

The Washington Capitals win last night over the Montreal Canadiens propels them into arguably the most-hyped NHL regular season game since the Charleston Chiefs took on the Syracuse Bulldogs – that being of course, a fictional playoff-game but does it really matter?  The Capitals – Penguins Winter Classic has all the fixings for a classic showdown and we at Capitals Outsider intend to give you full-access to the pomp and circumstance surrounding the event err game.  As Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau put so eloquently after the game, “I am eager to get it [The Winter Classic] over with, there has been so much build up and I just hope it doesn’t rain.”

But before even a rain droplet falls at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, we thought we would take a step back and look at how past Winter Classic participants have done in their games preceding to the event.

This year’s participants, of course, are the aforementioned Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.  With the victory last evening over the Canadiens, the Capitals (22-12-5) are a stout 4-4-2 in their last ten and have won 4 of their last 5; their sole loss being a shoot-out loss to the Atlantic Division leading Penguins.  The Penguins (25-11-2), on the other hand, are 7-3 going into a game tonight out on Long Island versus the Islanders.  The Penguins have previously played in the Winter Classic alllll the way back in 2008 versus the Buffalo Sabres (more below).

Last year, the two teams that played were the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers from historic Fenway.  The Bruins beat the Flyers 2-1 in OT.  At the time, the Bruins were 20-12-7 and had a 10 game record of 5-3-2.  They ended the season 3rd in the Northeast Division and lost in the conference semi-finals to the Flyers.  The Flyers on the other hand entered the Winter Classic with a record of 19-18-2 and had a 10 game record of 5-4-1.  Eventually, they finished the season 3rd in the Atlantic and lost in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals to the Chicago Blackhawks.

In 2009, the Chicago Blackhawks hosted the Detroit Red Wings and lost 6-4 from Wrigley Field.  Chicago entered the game with a blistering 9-1 in their previous 10 games and an overall record of 20-7-7.  However, their sole loss during those 10 games was to Winter Classic foe Detroit who drubbed them 4-0 in the game preceding the Winter Classic.  Chicago would go on to finish 2nd in the Central Division but lose in the conference finals to the Red Wings.  Detroit, on the other hand, was 24-7-5 and had a more modest 6-3-1 which included the 4-0 tune-up victory on Dec 30 over the Blackhawks.  They finished 1st in the Central Division and eventually lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals.

2008 was the First Winter Classic which featured the Buffalo Sabres hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins from Ralph Wilson Stadium.  There the Pens won 2-1 in a Shoot-out.  The host Sabres entered the Classic with a 19-16-2 record and were 6-3-1 in the previous 10.  Similarly, the Pens were 6-4 in their previous 10 but posted a 20-16-2 record at that point.  The Pens, unlike the Sabres, went on to finish 1st in the Atlantic and eventually lost in the Stanley Cup to Detroit.

So what does all of this historical data suggest for the 2011 installment of the Winter Classic?  Good things for the Washington Capitals.

  • First, in each of the 3 previous matchups, a team that participated in the event (2008: Penguins, 2009: Red Wings, 2010: Flyers) has gone on to the Stanley Cup Finals, however eventually losing.  What is worth noting though, is that in each instance it has been the visiting team in the Winter Classic that has been the one to reach it the Stanley Cup Finals.
  • Second, here were the records of the teams, in their previous 10 games, that won the Winter Classic (6-4 (08), 6-3-1 (09), 5-3-2 (10)).  These look a lot more like a 4-4-2 than a 7-3 clip.  This can indicate that the Capitals are starting to put it all together.  As Mike Green stated after last nights victory, “we finally had that feeling, guys are blocking shots, getting pucks out, getting pucks deep and I think over the course of the year we have been trying to learn that and we are finally implementing that to our game.”
  • Finally, the Capitals are playing well as the Winter Classic draws near.  36-16 for faceoff victories and shutting down the opponent’s power play bodes well.  Varlamov is seeing the puck better and the team is playing solid hockey up and down the ice, in both zones and more together as a team.  If they can improve and capitalize (no-pun intended) on their own power play chances, this team can really be special.

My Capitals’ Outsider prediction for the Winter Classic:  Caps 3 Pens 2 in OT.