Saturday, January 3, 2015

Lazar's smile, skills has WJC gold in reach for Canada

TORONTO -- It's a smile that lights up and energizes a nation.

Curtis Lazar's ever-present grin has been the backdrop for a team trying to win Canada's first gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship since 2009.

Lazar (Ottawa Senators) is Canada's captain and leader. In a pressure-packed event where the host country is expected to succeed, he has drawn on his experience from a year ago, when Canada finished fourth after losing 2-1 to Russia in the bronze-medal game. That loss came two days after a 5-1 loss to Finland in the semifinal.

He had three goals and seven points in Malmo, Sweden, at the 2014 WJC, but Lazar knew it would be different playing the 2015 WJC in Canada in front of family and friends, not to mention a hockey-mad nation that expects nothing less than gold.

"The big part is the distractions," Lazar said. "The returning guys really wanted to focus on the team and what we do in the dressing room knowing that we're going to have support from our fans and our great country. We knew going into the tournament there is room for no errors. You have to play disciplined hockey and make high-percentage plays."

Lazar's participation in the 2015 WJC was not set in stone. The 6-foot, 190-pound center was selected by the Senators with the 17th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. After leading the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League to a Memorial Cup championship last season, the 19-year-old earned a spot with the Senators out of training camp. In 27 games this season he has one goal and seven points while averaging 12:45 of ice time per game. It wasn't until Canada's final WJC training camp was underway that Ottawa permitted him to join the team. He was named captain shortly after his arrival.

"Every day he comes to the rink and he works hard," Canada coach Benoit Groulx said. "The way he acts is contagious in the dressing room. He's got that swagger and he is very confident. He believes in himself and he believes in his teammates. He is a competitor who wants to win and he's a big-time team guy."

Canada coasted through the WJC preliminary round, winning all four of its games by a combined score of 21-4. In the quarterfinals Friday, Canada beat Denmark 8-0. Lazar had two goals and an assist in the game, and his five goals are tied for the tournament lead.

While Lazar is all business when the puck drops, he is a constant source of passion and encouragement off the ice, where his ever-present smile is a common topic of conversation among his teammates.

Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) was asked if he ever has played with such a cheery teammate.

"I haven't," Duclair said. "Everybody talks about it and it's pretty cool. He's just a happy and jolly-go-lucky guy and we like it that way. He's always happy but he's a great leader. In the room he puts his experiences out there and lays it on the line and says the right things."

Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) agreed.

"He's the happiest guy we have all met," Domi said. "He's a great leader on and off the ice. Not only that, he has been putting the puck in the back of the net and that is great to see too."

Domi said one goal of he and his teammates during the tournament has been to try to throw Lazar off his game. They've been unsuccessful so far.

"There's not a lot that we can do to rattle him," Domi said. "When we are off the ice we try to see if we can get him a little angry but it never works. He always has the smile, and it's tough to be angry when you're around that guy."

In terms of offense, Lazar is one of a handful of weapons Canada boasts. Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres) is tied for the tournament lead with nine points and Nicolas Petan (Winnipeg Jets) is tied for fourth with eight points. Domi, who some feel has been Canada's best player thus far, has four goals and seven points.

Connor McDavid, who is expected to be the first player chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft, has two goals and seven points after missing five weeks with an injury to his right hand.

Canada has a lot of weapons, but it all comes back to Lazar.

"It's pretty nice to have a leader who calms everyone else like he does," Reinhart said. "He can be serious when it is needed, but the composure he brings to the table is the most important thing for sure."

It's no big deal according to Lazar.

"I'm happy to be here and happy to be contributing," he said. "Hopefully we can keep it going."

Sweden, Russia, Canada, Slovakia set for WJC semis

TORONTO -- Sweden, Russia, Canada and Slovakia are the final four teams left at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, and they'll play in the semifinals Sunday at Air Canada Centre.

Sweden, who won the silver medal at the 2014 WJC, plays Russia, the 2014 bronze medalists, in one semifinal; Canada faces Slovakia in the second game.

The survivors will meet in the gold-medal game in Toronto on Monday at 8 p.m. ET. The bronze-medal game is Monday at 4 p.m. ET.

Canada is making its 17th consecutive appearance in the tournament semifinals, Sweden is making its ninth straight appearance and Russia is in the final four for the fifth straight time. Slovakia, which has finished no higher than sixth (2012) the past five years at the WJC, last earned a semifinal berth in 2009.

A new champion is guaranteed this year since Finland, the 2014 gold medalist, lost 6-3 to Sweden on Friday in the quarterfinals. The other quarterfinal games saw Canada beat Denmark 8-0; Russia defeat the United States 3-2; and Slovakia defeat the Czech Republic 3-0.

Here is a closer look at the semifinal games:


Two of the highest-scoring teams in the tournament should provide plenty of offensive fireworks. Sweden, unbeaten in five games, ranks second with 24 goals while Russia is third with 16 goals. Sweden has beat Russia in 10 of their past 11 games at the WJC; the past five have been one-goal games.

Sweden beat Russia 2-1 in the semifinals of the 2014 WJC. The last time Russia beat Sweden was a 4-3 win in the semifinals in 2011 in Buffalo; that also was the last time Russia won gold at the tournament.

Forwards William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Oskar Lindblom (Philadelphia Flyers) are tied for the tournament scoring lead with nine points. Lindblom and Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings) lead Sweden with four goals each. Nine players have at least three points, including defenseman Gustav Forsling (Vancouver Canucks), who leads all players at his position at the tournament with eight points.

Sweden beat Russia 3-2 Dec. 29 in a Group B preliminary-round game, with an even-strength goal by Axel Holmstrom (Detroit Red Wings) with 9:07 remaining in the third period breaking a 2-2 tie.

"We beat them already but we have to forget about that win and worry about this next game," Nylander said. "They have great players so we have to be ready to go at it right off the bat. Advancing in this tournament is always the goal. We know how good we are and we know that we're able to compete for a medal so you want to set your standards pretty high because you expect a lot from yourself."

Sweden has excelled on special teams, with the tournament's best power play (12-for-24, 50 percent) and penalty kill (16-for-16, 100 percent).

Goaltender Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders) has five wins, a 1.80 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. He's played every minute of the tournament for Sweden.

Russia, which has averaged 3.2 goals per game, ranks fourth on the power play (6-for-20, 30 percent) but seventh on the penalty kill (14-for-19, 73.7 percent).

Ten players have at least one goal for Russia and eight players have three or more points, led by Pavel Buchnevich (New York Rangers), Ivan Barbashev (St. Louis Blues) and Vyacheslav Leshenko (2015 draft eligible) with five points each.

Defensively Ivan Provorov (2015 draft eligible) has done his best to impress in front of goaltenders Ilya Sorokin (New York Islanders) and Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers). Shesterkin, who made 39 saves in the win against the United States, has a 1.67 GAA and .949 save percentage in three games. Sorokin has a 2.41 GAA and .903 save percentage in two games.

"It's going to be tough game because Russia has a lot of skilled players and tough players," Kempe said. "We need to come out the same way we did last game; we played well against them."


Canada beat Slovakia 8-0 when they played a Group A game Dec. 26, the opening game of the tournament.

Slovakia will have an uphill battle against a Canada team that is clicking on all offensive and defensive cylinders right now. The only setback occurred Friday when forward Robby Fabbri (St. Louis Blues) sustained a high right ankle sprain in the win against Denmark; he'll miss the remainder of the tournament. Fabbri had two goals, six points and a plus-7 rating in five games, including two goals and four points in the preliminary-round win against Slovakia.

Canada coach Benoit Groulx has received production throughout his lineup. Canada is averaging a tournament-best 5.8 goals per game, and has gotten at least one goal from 14 players; eight have at least four points.

The top line of Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres) centering Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) and Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) has been Canada's best. Reinhart is tied with Sweden's Nylander and Lindblom for the tournament scoring lead with nine points (four goals, five assists). Domi has four goals and seven points, while Duclair has two goals and five points.

"Don't let the last game [against Slovakia] fool anyone because it's not fooling us," Reinhart said. "They've gotten better, and if they had a few breaks at the start that would have been a different game. We're not taking them lightly in the slightest."

Connor McDavid, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, appears to be getting stronger and more confident each game. McDavid entered the tournament having missed five weeks after sustaining an injury to his right hand Nov. 11 but he flashed some offensive wizardry in the quarterfinal win against Denmark with one goal and two assists. McDavid has two goals, seven points and a plus-5 rating in five games.

Canada captain Curtis Lazar (Ottawa Senators), McDavid's roommate and linemate, is tied for the tournament lead with five goals. Nicolas Petan (Winnipeg Jets) has provided secondary scoring with one goal and eight points, and Lawson Crouse (2015 draft eligible), the youngest player on the roster, has one goal and three points.

"The coaches are always stressing good habits," Crouse said. "In a tournament like this you always have to play with good habits. Even though you're winning you still have to do the right things at the right time."

Crouse played a key role on a steadily improving fourth line, alongside Frederik Gauthier (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Nick Ritchie (Anaheim Ducks), against Denmark on Friday.

"We're three big bodies and we have to use them down low to bring pucks to the net," Gauthier said. "We can create scoring chances or just get some momentum and so far it's been great."

The shut-down defense pair of Shea Theodore (Anaheim Ducks) and Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers) has been exceptional, and defenseman Joshua Morrissey (Winnipeg Jets) has one goal and three points but also has set the tone at the start of almost every game with a thunderous hit.

Canada has allowed a tournament-low four goals, and each goaltender has played well. Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens) has three wins, a 0.33 GAA and .981 save percentage. Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) has two wins, a 1.50 GAA and a .933 save percentage.

Slovakia will look to captain Martin Reway (Montreal Canadiens), who leads Slovakia with four goals and six points. Linemate Peter Cehlarik (Boston Bruins) has two goals and three points. Each player scored a third-period goal in the quarterfinal victory against the Czech Republic.

Goaltender Denis Godla, who made 34 saves in the shutout against the Czech Republic, has three wins, a 2.43 GAA and a .935 save percentage. Slovakia has allowed 14 goals in five games.

In the preliminary round of the 2014 WJC, Slovakia did hold its own in a 5-3 loss to Canada, which included an empty-net goal for Canada with 1:20 remaining in regulation.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Penguins acquire Perron to boost top-six group

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has been attempting to acquire a top-six forward since the first month of the season. He found one in David Perron.

The Penguins traded forward Rob Klinkhammer and a first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft on Friday to the Edmonton Oilers for Perron, who led Edmonton with 28 goals last season. Perron will enter Pittsburgh's top-six forward group, which has been decimated by injury and illness the past two months.

"We were finally in position so that we could find a guy who could come in, help our forwards, give us more depth up front," Rutherford said. "He can play both wings comfortably. He's a right shot. He likes to play the left side, but based on our injury situation, we suspect he would start on the right side with us until we get our full team back, but we're very pleased we could make this addition today."

Rutherford was in talks with the Oilers for more than a month, but the discussions became more serious during the past week. He said it is possible the Penguins could acquire another top-six forward this season, but it would be more difficult.

"It gets a little trickier now," Rutherford said. "We can still make moves, but any future moves we make, we would have to take somebody out of our lineup, and I like what the guys have done to this point. Everybody, in different ways, has contributed to where we are. So, we'll just watch the team to see what the needs are, and if we feel we still have needs, we have lots of time to still add."

The Penguins wanted to bring in a top-six forward as early as possible to allow him time to gel with his new teammates prior to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Rutherford said he prefers trading for players well before the trade deadline because he feels players acquired at the deadline often don't pan out.

"If you look at the deadline deals, there are not many of those deals that impact the playoffs," Rutherford said. "You don't have a lot of time to get a guy into your team and get accustomed to your team. I like to make a deal in January, and this is a time where David can come in and there will be an adjustment period, of course. But he can get used to his teammates. Everybody can get to know each other.

"With that being said, as we get close to the deadline, if something makes sense for us, we'll still do it. I just think you have a better chance of that player having an impact in the playoffs if you get him sooner than later."

The Penguins' current top-six group includes high-profiled forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz, but also regular third-line center Brandon Sutter, Bryan Rust, who recently was recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, and forward Beau Bennett, who has missed 29 games this season because of various injuries and the mumps.

Forward Patric Hornqvist is sidelined with an upper-body injury, and Pascal Dupuis will not play for the rest of the season because of a potentially career-ending blood clot in his lung.

Even when Hornqvist returns, Perron is pegged to play on one of the top two lines, alongside either Crosby or Malkin.

Crosby and Malkin have been paired together on the top line, with Crosby as center and Malkin on the left wing, in an attempt to retain some of the spark that carried the Penguins to the top of the Eastern Conference through the early portion of the season.

Partnering two of the NHL's top players hasn't paid off. The Penguins have lost four of their past five games and have failed to score more than two goals in three consecutive games. Crosby has two goals in his past 14 games, and Malkin, who leads Pittsburgh with 16 goals, has one in his past 10.

When Perron enters the lineup, it is likely Crosby and Malkin will return to their roles centering the top two lines. That could help delineate the offensive production throughout Pittsburgh's four lines and allow Crosby and Malkin to play more freely.

But Perron's addition does not only impact the Penguins offensively. They were able to acquire the wing without trading any of their highly touted defensive prospects, including Derrick Pouliot. That was something Rutherford said played an important role in his negotiations with the Oilers.

"[Not letting go of a defensive prospect] was the good part of it," Rutherford said. "We have a good group of young defensemen and they've been coming along really nicely in their development stage, and to be able to hang on to those guys was good."

The Penguins did let go of a skilled young player, in Rutherford's opinion, by trading a first-round pick at the 2015 NHL Draft. But he said Pittsburgh added a proven NHL player who could remain with the Penguins for seasons to come.

"It's going to be a good draft, but it's the same as how you look at any player. Is the player going to do well or is not going to do well?" Rutherford said. "Will the draft pick work out or will not work out? But certainly, that draft pick should be a good young player, but we also got a player that's fairly young. Perron's only 26.

"He's coming into the prime of his career and as long as the contract works out long term and he fits here, he could be a good player here for a good six, seven years."

U.S. fails to medal for second straight year at WJC

MONTREAL -- Jack Eichel and the United States were eliminated from the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship on Friday, marking the second straight year that they will not be competing for a medal at the tournament.

The United States lost 3-2 against Russia in their quarterfinal game at Bell Centre. Russia won 5-3 in a 2014 WJC quarterfinal against the United States, which won gold in 2012, but will not play for a medal for the third time in four years.

Eichel, a consensus top-two pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, had an assist on Anthony DeAngelo's power-play goal Friday and finished the tournament with one goal and three assists in five games.

"I don't think I did enough. I don't think we did enough as a team," Eichel said. "You're never satisfied with yourself, especially when you lose in the quarterfinals. I could have buried more chances and been a little better in my own zone. I definitely can take a lot out of this tournament and get better moving forward."

Eichel is one of five U.S. players who lost to Russia last year in Malmo, Sweden.

DeAngelo (Tampa Bay Lightning) believed that the United States was strong enough to compete for the gold medal.

"It's definitely not what we expected, not what we were looking for, so it's tough to swallow," DeAngelo said. "We thought we were just as good as any team in this tournament, and I still do, but we're not going to have a chance to show it, so it is what it is now."

The United States (2-1-0-2) outscored its opponents 11-1 while winning its first three games for the sixth time in eight years. A 5-3 loss to Canada on New Year's Eve meant a second place finish in Group A that set up a quarterfinal rematch against Russia, which finished third in Group B in Toronto.

The United States was the least-penalized team through the preliminary round with 13 minors for 26 penalty minutes. It took eight penalties Friday against Russia. Five of those were called in the first period, including minors 21 seconds apart to Tyler Motte (Chicago Blackhawks) and Ryan Collins (Columbus Blue Jackets) before Russia scored on a 5-on-3 power play at 2:31.

"One of our strengths was our depth," U.S coach Mark Osiecki said. "Unfotunately we couldnt' show that [Friday]."

Defenseman Will Butcher (Colorado Avalanche), and forwards Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings) and Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres) were named the United States' top three players of the 2015 WJC.

Larkin led the United States with five goals and seven points in five games, and Fasching had a goal and two assists.

Butcher assisted on DeAngelo's power-play goal Friday for his first point of the tournament.

"I thought we had a whole other level we could have reached," goalie Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks) said. "That being said, it's a short tournament, and you don't have the luxury of having time to sort those things out. You kind of have to hit your stride a little earlier than we did."

Forward Auston Matthews, a 2016 NHL Draft prospect, is among the leading candidates to compete for the United States at the 2016 WJC in Helsinki. Matthews had a goal and two assists in his WJC debut.

"Overall we like the group that was in that locker room," Osiecki said. "Maybe our youth showed up a little bit, but we like the way that they put an effort in. They were prepared [Friday] and I think when they came out I think they were focused and they've got to walk out of that locker room with their heads held high."

Islanders' Pulock asserting himself offensively in AHL

Three months past his 20th birthday, Ryan Pulock is the youngest member of an already youthful Bridgeport Sound Tigers defensive corps.

Selected No. 15 by the New York Islanders at the 2013 NHL Draft, the Manitoba native came with a warning label: Highly offensive.

"You could see the potential [and] the upside," Sound Tigers coach Brent Thompson said of Pulock prior to his arrival in Bridgeport. "And you definitely can see his shot and the weapon that it is."

Over four seasons with Brandon in the Western Hockey League, Pulock scored 210 points in 261 regular-season games and 15 points in 24 playoff games. He finished among the Wheat Kings' top 10 scorers all four years, concluding his final season in Brandon 19 points ahead of the Wheat Kings' next-best defenseman.

In his first full professional season, New York Islanders 2013 first-round draft pick Ryan Pulock leads the American Hockey League with 10 power-play goals. (Photo: Puck Stopper Photography)

Now in his rookie season in the American Hockey League, Pulock is adjusting to the new demands of professional hockey.

"I want to be a two-way player. Offensively, I have the skills," said Pulock, who debuted with the Sound Tigers last April and played three games. "I like to use my shot and I'm continuing to work on the defensive zone so that I can be trusted out there in all situations and play big minutes when it matters for the team and help the team win."

The Sound Tigers are tied for ninth in the AHL's Eastern Conference, one point out of a playoff spot. They have points in four of their past six games and Pulock's immediate impact has been felt: He is tied for the team lead in goals (12) and fifth in scoring with 17 points through 28 games.

"I think the most impressive adjustment for him is the power play, the way he can still get a shot off," Thompson said. "He's adjusted very well to the timing as far as getting that shot off, or getting it through to the net. That's one huge thing that he's doing very, very well."

Huge and very, very well could almost be understatements for the prowess Pulock has shown with the extra man. His 10 power-play goals lead the AHL and have helped Bridgeport to a league-leading 24.3 percent conversion rate.

His offensive abilities earned him nods on the WHL's First All-Star Team for the Eastern Conference in 2011-12 and 2013-14. Pulock, whose name is scattered among the statistical leaderboards for rookies and defensemen, could be in line for AHL All-Star recognition when rosters are named next week for the league's midseason showcase.

With a young Sound Tigers blue line that includes rookies Griffin Reinhart, Jesse Graham and Adam Pelech, Pulock has been paired with Bridgeport captain Aaron Ness for the majority of the the season, something that has helped him flourish on the ice and get in the right mindset off of it.

"We're young, but with Ness, he's been around this league for a few years," Pulock said. "He's been up a bit, too, so he knows what it takes to get there and how hard it is to stick there and what you have to do. He's a good guy to be paired with every day."

Pulock has barely made a dent in his professional hockey career, but he knows what it will take to challenge and ultimately win a roster spot with the Islanders. He is confident in what he can bring to the Bridgeport roster and candid in what he is working on to not only help the Sound Tigers succeed, but to further mold himself into a future NHL player.

"I want to be harder to play against in the defensive zone. Those one-on-one battles down low, being physical with guys, eliminating them off the puck," he said. "I think other areas [to work on] are my transitions, moving the puck quick [and] getting it up to the forwards, making that first simple play."

Thompson, who played 14 pro seasons as a defenseman including 121 games in the NHL before retiring in 2005, cites Pulock's in-game assertiveness with and without the puck, and playing at a faster pace as two of the things he and his staff are working to improve.

"I never question his effort level or mindset coming to get better. That's a plus. That's a great thing to see in a prospect," Thompson added. "The Islanders did a great job of drafting a quality kid both on and off the ice."

All the pieces are there and Pulock is eager to continue piecing them together.

"I'm here trying to help Bridgeport succeed, but at the same time, I'm here trying to improve my game and be a complete player," Pulock said. "I think that's up to me to continue to improve every day so that I can get to the level of those players [in New York] and hopefully be able to play alongside them."

For the latest news, scores and stats from around the American Hockey League, visit

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Tough loss dampens great Winter Classic experience

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Raanta dressed for his first Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Thursday at Nationals Park, backing up starter Corey Crawford against the Washington Capitals .

The Blackhawks were defeated 3-2 on a goal by Troy Brouwer with 13 second remaining in the game. In his final blog from the Winter Classic, Raanta discusses the magic leading to the game as well as the disappointment of the last minute loss.

WASHINGTON -- It was a special day to be part of the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. We woke up at 9 a.m. and had a good breakfast before we started to make the trip here to the stadium.

You could really feel that everyone was excited about the game on the way over here. When we came here and had time for some pre-game warmups, we decided to play soccer outside on the field. That was a great feeling. We could see the fans were showing up early and ready for the game.

When we started to put our gear on in the locker room it was a lot of excitement. Once we had everything ready, we went to the ice for the warmup.

It was pretty hard for the goalies during warmups because the sun was shining in our end and then it was coming from the ice. I was wondering how [Corey Crawford] was going to do there. When you got used to that, it turned out to be pretty fun. You could see the puck pretty well, so it wasn’t too bad.

After the warmup, we just came back to the locker room. Then, we walked around the stadium to get to the ice from the outfield. When we got out there, the two F-18 Hornets made the [flyover] and that was really fun. You could feel the power that those things have. My whole body was shaking a little bit after that. That was a great feeling.

When the game started, everybody was ready to play. I think we started playing pretty good, but Washington got a couple of chances. They got a breakaway and a goal there so they had a little momentum.

We changed the sides after 10 minutes and it changed the game a little bit. I think we were playing pretty good in the last 10 minutes and got one goal back.

The second period was really good for us. We had the second goal and that was huge for us.

It was a tough way to end the game. Both teams had chances in the third period, but then Washington got the late winner. It was a disappointment. It is always hard to lose a game late like that and we had those penalties going on there.

Right now we’re just thinking about losing the two points, so it is not a great feeling. It was a tough loss but overall it was a really great day.

World Junior Championship medal round preview

MONTREAL - If the preliminary-round stage of the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship proved anything it's that international competition certainly brings out the best in the top junior-aged hockey players the world has to offer.

How else could you explain Slovakia earning a 2-1 victory against defending champion Finland, Switzerland thumping tournament contender Czech Republic, 5-2, and Denmark's fantastic locker room celebration after winning for the first time in the top division of the WJC, a 4-3 shootout decision against Switzerland.

While the occasional upset is certainly par for the course at the WJC in recent years, the perennial favorites always seem to be vying for the grand prize in the end. This year is no exception as the United States, Canada, Sweden and Russia are four of the eight teams to advance into the playoff round of the tournament that begins Friday.

There have been four different champions at the WJC over the past four years, including Russia in 2011, Sweden in 2012, the United States in 2013 and Finland in 2014. The Finns needed a 2-0 victory against Germany in their final preliminary-round match on Wednesday to qualify for the medal round as the fourth seed in Group A. The last time a host nation won gold at the WJC was 2009 when Canada celebrated an unprecedented fifth straight championship in Ottawa. That was also the last time the always favored Canadians won a gold medal at this event.

Canada will be looking to end a two-year medal drought on home ice this year; it won bronze in 2012 when the tournament was held in Calgary. So far, so good, as Canada will enter the medal round as the No. 1 seed in Group A after four straight wins and 12 points. Canada scored an impressive 5-3 victory against the United States on New Year's Eve to secure the top seed.

The winner of each quarterfinal game will advance to the semifinal round at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sunday at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET. The semifinal survivors advance to the gold medal game at ACC on Monday at 8 p.m. ET, and the losers play for bronze at ACC at 4 p.m. ET on Monday.

Here's a look at the quarterfinal-round matchups on Friday:

Canada vs. Denmark (Air Canada Center, Toronto; 8 p.m. ET): Canada coach Benoit Groulx is going to take the same approach against Denmark as he did the past four victories in the preliminary round and for good reason. Canada (4-0-0-0, 12 points) has scored the most goals (21) and allowed the fewest (four) in the tournament, has the best power-play efficiency (6-of-12, 50 percent) and owns the second-best penalty-killing unit (13-of-14, 93 percent). The top line of Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres) centering Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) and Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) has been exceptional, totaling nine goals and 19 points. Reinhart leads the team with eight points (three goals, five assists), and Domi (four goals, three assists) and Nicholas Petan (one goal, six assists) each have seven points.

The shutdown defense pair of Shea Theodore (Anaheim Ducks) and Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers) limited top 2015 NHL-Draft prospect Jack Eichel to one assist and a minus-3 rating in the victory against the United States. Canada center Connor McDavid, who is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, has one goal, four points and a plus-1 rating. Goaltenders Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) and Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens) have each won two games. Comrie has a 1.50 goals-against average and .933 save percentage and Fucale has a 0.50 GAA and .975 save percentage.

Denmark (0-1-2-1, four points), which is making its first appearance in the medal round of the top division of the WJC, has been led offensively by Oliver Bjorkstrand (Columbus Blue Jackets) with four goals, five points and 20 shots on goal. Defensively, goaltender Georg Sorensen, who was passed over at the 2014 NHL Draft, was stellar in a 4-3 shootout victory against Switzerland on Dec. 30. Despite his numbers (3.70 GAA, .908 save percentage), the 19-year-old remains a big part of the team's success.

United States vs. Russia (Bell Centre, Montreal; 1 p.m. ET): Each team is looking to rebound following losses on New Year's Eve. The United States lost to rival Canada, 5-3, and Russia to rival Czech Republic, 4-1. Russia has 10 players with at least one goal and the United States enters the game with nine. The United States is the least penalized team in the tournament (13 minor penalties, 26 minutes) and has allowed three fewer goals (9-6) than Russia in four games.

The United States (2-1-0-1, eight points) has received top production from center Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings), who leads the team with five goals and seven points. Larkin's line with Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres), in fact, has accounted for eight goals and 14 points. Larkin and Fasching share the team lead with a plus-7 rating and Milano has two goals and four points.

The young defensive corps held its own in the preliminary round but will need to step up a notch when the stakes are higher in the medal round. Goaltender Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks) has done well, stopping 85 of 89 shots in three games with a 1.31 GAA and .955 save percentage. Russia eliminated the United States in the quarterfinal round of the 2014 WJC on its way to earning a bronze medal.

Russia (1-1-0-2, five points) has three players with four points: Ivan Barbashev (St. Louis Blues), Vyacheslav Leschenko (2015 draft eligible) and Pavel Buchnevich (New York Rangers). Goaltenders Ilya Sorokin (New York Islanders) and Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers) have each played two games.

Sweden vs. Finland (Air Canada Centre, Toronto; 3 p.m. ET): The defending champion Finland (1-0-1-2, four points) needed a preliminary-round victory against winless Germany on the final day to qualify for the medal round. There's no denying the fact the Finns are now champing at the bit to get a piece of unbeaten Sweden (4-0-0-0, 12 points), which lost to its European rival in the gold medal game last year.

Just three players have scored for Finland: forwards Artturi Lehkonen (Montreal Canadiens) and Mikko Rantanen (2015 draft eligible), and defenseman Julius Honka (Dallas Stars). Rantanen, who NHL Central Scouting projects as a first-round choice in the 2015 NHL Draft, leads the way with three goals on just nine shots. His linemate, 16-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi (2016 draft eligible), doesn't have a point but leads his country with 23 shots. Goaltender Ville Husso (St. Louis Blues) has a regulation win, shootout loss, 0.96 GAA and .967 save percentage. Finland is the second-least penalized team in the tournament with 14 minor penalties totaling 28 minutes.

Sweden has been paced on offense by center William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs) and left wing Oskar Lindblom (Philadelphia Flyers) with seven points apiece, and center Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings) has five points. Sweden, which last celebrated a WJC title in 2012, is second in goals scored (18), second in power-play efficiency (9-of-19), first in penalty killing (12-for-12) and third in team save percentage (.940). Defenseman Gustav Forsling (Vancouver Canucks) has two goals and six points and goaltender Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders) has won all four games for the Swedes.

Czech Republic vs. Slovakia (Bell Centre, Montreal; 5 p.m. ET): The Czech Republic (1-1-0-2, five points) was given new life after a victory against rival Russia, 4-1, on New Year's Eve. The win, and accompanying three points, moved the country three spots to No. 2 in Group B.

The Czechs have been led on offense by David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins), Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals) and Pavel Zacha (2015 draft eligible), and defenseman Jan Kostalek (Winnipeg Jets). The team has been outscored 14-12 in four games and ranks ninth with a .849 save percentage. They are also the second-highest penalized team in the tournament, averaging just under 18 minutes in penalties each game.

Slovakia (2-0-0-2, six points), which had wins against Finland (2-1) and Germany (5-2), hasn't finished higher than sixth since 2010 at the WJC. Forward Martin Reway (Montreal Canadiens) leads the team with three goals and five points. Defenseman Erik Cernak (2015 draft eligible) has played well in his three games; he was suspended one game for an illegal check against Finland. Goaltender Denis Godla has two wins and two losses with a 3.12 GAA and .919 save percentage.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL

Little gentle gentlewomen

Arabella ice hockey

Arabella ice hockey

Arabella ice hockey

Arabella ice hockey

The act of sportmanship, fair play and nice character. Two little girls on the skates and one fall. When 3 years old little girl Arabella felt on the ice, unable get back, her oponnent, also the girl, one year older, gave her hand and helped her to stand up. I wish you great new year full of nice things, behaviour, fair play and good hearts.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Canada's depth shuts down Eichel, U.S. at WJC

MONTREAL – A lot of the attention surrounding the preliminary-round game between Canada and the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championship on Wednesday was the matchup between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

But the top two prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft were barely ever on the ice together. Instead, it was an entirely different matchup that allowed Canada to come away with a 5-3 win to claim first place in Group A.

Canada coach Benoit Groulx used the advantage of having the last change to play defensemen Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers) and Shea Theodore (Anaheim Ducks) and the forward line of Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres), Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) and Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) against Eichel's line the entire game.

That group shut down Eichel, Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild) and Tyler Motte (Chicago Blackhawks) by doing what that line had done so successfully to that point in the tournament; controlling the puck and keeping it in the offensive zone, far away from the Canada net.

"He's a talented player and he's got two linemates helping him out as well," Reinhart said. "They're good, but we tried to focus on our game. I thought we played the same way as we have, and we were able to have the puck for the most part."

Eichel had a tremendous chance to score in the first minute of the game. After Motte drove hard to the net to create a rebound, Eichel got the puck in the slot and had most of the net to shoot at, but Nurse came sliding into the crease with Tuch and Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) got across, and that combination of bodies managed to keep Eichel's shot out.

But from that point, Eichel's line spent most of the game chasing the puck, and the few times they got it in the offensive zone they were quickly neutralized by Nurse and Theodore.

"They played physical," Eichel said. "That's the way they're going to play so you have to battle through it."

Though they were successful against Eichel, Canada still came away impressed with his game.

"He's just fast," Theodore said. "He's got great hockey sense and he really knows what areas of the ice to go to if he wants to get opportunities. I felt like we did a good job tonight."

Eichel's line bookended its game with quality chances, with Tuch getting off a shot from the slot while the U.S. trailed by a goal in the final minute of regulation.

But just as with Eichel's chance in the opening minute of the game, Nurse intervened by blocking Tuch's shot and sweeping the puck to the corner with his glove moments before Reinhart scored into an empty net to make it 4-2 Canada.

"First of all [Canada] played well against him, absolutely," U.S. coach Mark Osiecki said. "The thing I will say is I thought our guys didn't get rattled. Whether they had success or not, Jack and his linemates didn't get rattled, they kept on plugging away. But [Canada] did a nice job on them, no doubt about that. And that's to be expected.

"When you've got that elite profile on you, you're going to draw a lot of attention."

It was appropriate that Nurse make that play at such a pivotal moment of the game because of how well he and Theodore and Reinhart's line neutralized the biggest offensive threat for the U.S.

Winning the matchup that no one was talking about was a big reason Canada won the game.

Capitals view Blackhawks as model franchise

WASHINGTON -- When the Chicago Blackhawks were ascending to the top of the NHL, they had a franchise to measure themselves against, to model their progress after.

That franchise was the Detroit Red Wings, which was the elite organization in the League for a long time. Whether it was on-ice success or a wealth of intangible measures, the Blackhawks wanted what the Red Wings had.

It wasn't really until Chicago beat Detroit in the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs and won a second title that the little brother-big brother dynamic disappeared from that rivalry.

After two championships and four trips to the Western Conference Final in six seasons, the Blackhawks, along with the Los Angeles Kings, have become a franchise others measure themselves against. The Blackhawks will meet one of those teams Thursday in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park.

"I think the Blackhawks are probably the gold standard right now in the National Hockey League with success on the ice and success off the ice, having a strong following," Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "To me they do everything right. The details, game presentation, facilities -- they think about the whole hockey experience for their fans, for their players, for their employees. That to me is the gold standard."

The Capitals reached a similar valley as the Blackhawks did before Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane arrived in Chicago. Washington has experienced success with its core of world-class players in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but not at the same level as Chicago.

Washington won the Presidents' Trophy in 2009-10, but Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens knocked the Capitals out of the playoffs, and about six weeks later Toews received the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. The Capitals struggled to maintain their status as title contender in the following seasons, while the Blackhawks have flourished.

"Just based on our personnel, I don't think our team is going to look like theirs does, but the consistency and kind of their attitude and their culture, that is something that we can hopefully get to that level someday," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "They've got it established and they are proven winners. A lot of the same people are there, and they know what it takes.

"We're not there yet. We haven't accomplished anything. We want to have some of the attributes they have, like the culture, and I'm not in their room, but I'm sure they have a lot of accountability. Hopefully we can get there."

A number of factors have contributed to the Blackhawks' success. It starts with talent, and there are few teams in the NHL that can match the skill and talent and depth assembled in the Windy City.

Through a combination of a forward-thinking front office and a coaching staff open to new ideas and concepts, the Blackhawks have been lauded as one of the franchises most willing to use recent innovations in analytics to their advantage.

The Blackhawks are one of the best puck-possession teams, and coach Joel Quenneville helps maximize his players with how and when his deploys them. The success and the quality of the players have also helped foster that culture Niskanen was talking about.

"It is kind of passed down to you from the guys who have been here," Ben Smith, one of the younger Blackhawks, said. "You expect to win every night. You are expected to work hard and give your best. That is the challenge you're given. We're fortunate to have a lot of guys who have been around here for a while and maybe when that wasn't the case.

"We look at those guys and watch them to see what they bring to the table every day. They want to win and they're going to do whatever it takes. For a guy like me or [Andrew Shaw] or [Marcus Kruger], as guys coming in the last few years, it is a great atmosphere to learn in and continue to improve."

Words like "culture" and "accountability" and "leadership" are hard to define. Teams around the NHL are desperate to be strong in those areas. The Blackhawks and Kings are two of the teams that have "it," and the others want what they have.

"It speaks to the kind of people we have. We hold ourselves accountable more than anything else," Smith said. "We put the pressure to win ourselves individually more than leaning on the team in general. We're very fortunate to have good people here from the top down, and that feeds into what the team has accomplished and hopefully can in the future."

The Blackhawks have been among the best puck-possession and goal-prevention teams in the NHL all season. There was a point where they were not among the teams with the most wins or points in the standings.

This was a time when Chicago's culture was most evident. The Blackhawks did not panic and did not change their style of play or objectives. They knew they were playing well and the pucks would start going in the net.

That has happened, and now the Blackhawks are back near the top of the League standings. They are also a near-consensus favorite as the team to beat in the NHL as the calendar flips to 2015.

"[Quenneville] will give us the right recipe to be successful," Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell said. "At the beginning of the year, we were playing the way he wanted us to, but things weren't quite going our way. That 'Circus Trip' about a month ago, we finally started to figure out and we had some chemistry with four lines and we've been rolling with it.

"We've got a great core that has grown together. If you look at what we've done the past couple years, the past several years, it is special. We have a chance to do the same thing. We're looking forward to it."

The Capitals have a new coach in Trotz and a couple of new veteran defensemen in Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. They also played well at the beginning of the season but lacked the results to show for it.

"I haven't won anything either. I just played in a place that kind of had that established. Maybe I can bring a little bit of that, but Brooks can for sure," Niskanen said. "He saw the lean times in Pittsburgh and won a championship and been everywhere in between. He knows what a winning culture looks like and what a not-so-good culture looks like. That's a big thing for him. We want to help on the ice for sure, but hopefully we can help.

"I think we can keep going, but we're heading in the right direction. We didn't want to completely change everything because this team has done a lot of good things in the past. There's been a little change in attitude and how to look at parts of the game can help us. "It's a lot of stuff without the puck. I think the attitude without the puck has been a big push, and that's where we are seeing some improvement."

The process has started to produce more victories, and Washington hopes to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. More than that though, the Capitals want to be back in that small group of elite teams and have a chance to finally reach the peaks the Blackhawks have scaled.

"We've both come from the ashes to be pretty strong franchises this past decade, so there are some parallels, but the one thing we haven't done is we haven't won a banner," Trotz said. "We've won some of the smaller banners, but we haven't won the big one, and that's what I know this ownership and this organization wants to do. We're trying to build toward something like that if we can."


Hardworking Holtby impresses Capitals coach Trotz

WASHINGTON -- Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz has tinkered with his forward lines with hopes of spreading offense around, but there has been one constant over the past several weeks: Braden Holtby.

The Capitals goaltender has started the past 13 games and will likely get the nod from Trotz again Thursday when Washington hosts the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA).

Holtby, who is 16-8-6 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, has helped the Capitals move into third place in the Metropolitan Division entering Wednesday. As for the heavy workload, Holtby says the more, the merrier.

"I feel fine," Holtby said after the Capitals practiced outdoors Wednesday. "I feel better when I play more. I feel better physically. I've always kind of hated days off in general. I've said it before: If I could play every game, I would. Whenever Coach calls my name, I'm more than happy to play."

Holtby attributed some of his recent success to goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who joined Trotz's staff last June after the two left the Nashville Predators.

"He's very passionate; he's got a ton of knowledge," Holtby said. "He's willing to share that knowledge. That's something that you want in a coach. A goalie-coach relationship has to be fairly close, and it's just fun to pick his brain and see what you can learn from him.

"I think there's definitely some improvements that I've made. I try to tighten things up in certain situations so that I don't get as spread out and nothing gets through me. It's been a process, but it's definitely coming."

Trotz also believes Korn's work has played a huge role in Holtby's recent success, along with two big free-agent signings last July.

"He's worked on a lot of things with Mitch Korn and our goaltending staff," Trotz said of Holtby. "Also, I think our system is a lot different than maybe the previous year in terms of our play and the additions of [Matt] Niskanen and [Brooks] Orpik. I think early [in the season], Braden's biggest problem was he wasn't getting very many shots, and that's hard for a goaltender when you're used to getting a lot of shots and not getting as much.

"I think he's gotten more comfortable. He's worked on his game. I feel very comfortable. He's worked hard; he's got that sort of blue-collar mentality where he really works on his game. He's filling in the holes where he knows he needs to fill in. He's doing a really good job. I'll ride him as long as he says, 'I'm good to go.'"

Holtby's consistency has not only helped Washington climb the standings in the Metropolitan, but it's also created a confidence on the blue line. Even when the Capitals make a mistake, they know their last line of defense is there to bail them out.

"He's won us some hockey games over the last couple of weeks," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "He's just been very consistent and come up with big saves when we needed him. That's all you can really ask for from a goalie, be consistent and make those stops when we need him, and that's what he's done."

This will be Holtby's first outdoor game in the NHL, but he had the opportunity to play in a similar atmosphere with the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League in 2012 against the Adirondack (now Lehigh Valley) Phantoms at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Holtby said he loves this type of event and the smiles it generates during practice and in the dressing room.

"It's fun to see the guys having so much fun," Holtby said. "We play so much throughout your career, and it gets to the point where you kind of don't appreciate things as much as you should. A day like today really shows how fun hockey is.

"It's great. It shows how many people here really appreciate the game. That's what this game is for. It's for true fans, it's for the hockey community. We're just glad to have it here. It's a fun thing to be a part of."


USA Warriors honored at Winter Classic practice

WASHINGTON -- When the horn sounded at the conclusion of practice at Nationals Park on Wednesday, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson raised his arms as though he was celebrating a goal, then wrapped one of them around one of the wounded soldiers who was given a chance to participate.

The USA Warriors were honored throughout the day by the Blackhawks and Washington Capitals, one day before the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA). The wounded military personnel had their picture taken with the Capitals and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, then skated with the Blackhawks later in the afternoon.

"Having those warriors out there is fun," Hjalmarsson said. "You can see how they lit up in their eyes to be out there with us playing. We think it's equal fun for us too. We just want to show our appreciation for what they've been doing. We've done it a couple of times now and it's a lot of fun."

Daly was thrilled the League had a chance to give the nation's heroes an opportunity to meet some players and share the spotlight during one of its premier events.

"We've always been very close to the [USA] Warriors, going back a number of years, and actually the Chicago Blackhawks organization when they won the Cup in 2010," Daly said. "They made a trip down here and connected with the [USA] Warriors. It's something we feel strongly about. Obviously, Washington is a perfect platform to honor the military and all they do for us."

During practice, the Blackhawks and the USA Warriors competed in a game of shinny and had the chance to discuss the game with some of their favorite players. It was a day they won't soon forget.

"It means the world to us," said Mike Cain, who lost his right leg in Iraq in 2003, then had his left leg amputated because of nerve damage 10 years later. "We come out here and a lot of people think these guys are celebrities because they're NHL players, but to us they're just friends of ours because we've known them for so many years and we've gotten to hang out with them. We've done stuff with the Blackhawks for the past three years and the Caps have done so much for our hockey program. They've been very huge supporters."

"It's special. It's a lot of fun," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think they look forward to it and our guys really enjoy it. It's three games we've had with these guys almost three years in a row, a couple of times at Soldier Field.

"The thrill and the excitement of playing against your heroes, it's been fun. Those guys are sweating when they're done. They didn't take a warm-up like we did today, so we had a little bit of an advantage. But I think everybody at the end of the enjoyed themselves."


Raanta: Lucky to share this with Blackhawks family

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Raanta is preparing for his first Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. He's expected to back up starter Corey Crawford on Thursday against the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park, as he did on March 1 in Chicago's Coors Light 2014 NHL Stadium Series game against the Pittsburgh Penguins .

Raanta agreed to offer his opinions in blog form leading up to the main event.

WASHINGTON -- I've been thinking a lot about how we got here of late. It's been a whirlwind.

We came in last night and that's when you start feeling the excitement that the Winter Classic is close. Everybody was more and more excited about that. This morning when we woke up we knew it would be a special day.

We came to the rink a couple hours early, long before practice, just so we could get out there, see the ice, and really just soak it in. It's a phenomenal stadium and it was a great feeling to be out there. You got that feeling of excitement that you're going to be out on that ice soon.

So we came back in the locker room and we were getting ready for practice, but there was a significant buzz. It was really fun.

We went out there for practice and the sun was still shining. What was great was watching Crow, Corey Crawford, trying to battle the sun because he got the goal that had the glare and I had the other one. That was hilarious to watch him battle that. He asked me, "How did you find the puck?" I laughed. I was like, "Hey, it was way better on my end."

You know what, though, it's those small things that make this so special, a little thing like that in practice makes it memorable even though we did all the normal drills. It even felt more exciting to do those normal drills because you could see all the cameras around the ice and knew they were all focused on you. That was a great feeling.

We then had a chance to play against the USA Warriors. That was great stuff. I think I let in nine goals, so it wasn't the best game of my life, but it was great to play with and against those guys. You could see the smiles on their faces and how much they enjoyed that, and you could see our guys smiling, so you knew how much we were all enjoying it.

After that, we stayed on the ice to skate with family and friends. That's another one of those special moments.

The game will come and I know I might not play because Crow will, but it's still about being a part of this team, this group, the whole month that we've had here with the cameras from EPIX here. It's a great feeling to be a part of this group. It's thrilling to be here even if I'm not playing. It's going to be a great experience again.

That's one of the special things about coming to this team, we get to do all these amazing things.

When I signed with the Blackhawks in 2013, I knew how good the organization was because that's what everybody was saying. When I was thinking about my options I just kept thinking, the Blackhawks have the plan, it's in motion, and the future is bright. As soon as I signed here I felt like I was part of it all.

All the trips we do, staying in the best hotels, all the great things; I was like a kid in a candy store when I came here. Then we had the outdoor game last year and I got so excited waiting for my new gear to arrive, and it was even cooler that it was snowing during the game.

The whole feeling about being a part of this group, it's a dream come true. It's a big family.

But when the game starts, you never know what can happen. I've got to prepare to be ready to go in, and hey, maybe we'll be winning 6-0 late in the third period and they'll say, "OK, Antti, go ahead."

I know goalies like to play the whole game, and that's fine. Everybody wants to be here, everybody wants to be a part of it, and if my role is to be a backup I'm fine with that. But if anything happens, I'm ready to go when they need me.

Blackhawks, Capitals enter Classic at top of games

WASHINGTON -- Two of the hottest teams in the NHL will play out in the cold Thursday.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who are 7-2-1 in their past 10 games to seize possession of first place in the Central Division, are set to face the Washington Capitals in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

Washington is 6-1-3 in its past 10 games and has moved into third place in the Metropolitan Division. This will be the Capitals' second Winter Classic (they played the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field in 2011).

"The message is, enjoy this experience," Washington coach Barry Trotz said after the Capitals practiced on the outdoor rink Wednesday. "Let's face it, this is pretty unique. It's something that you don't always get to do. You want to share it with your family. One of the things that I've tried to do with our group is just make sure [to] be pros about it."

The Capitals (18-11-7) have managed to find ways to collect points despite playing six of their past seven games on the road. They had a few hours to relax and were able to skate with their families after practice Wednesday, but captain Alex Ovechkin expects a return to the businesslike mentality when everyone arrives at the stadium on New Year's Day.

"It's going to be a fun time," said Ovechkin, who leads Washington with 17 goals in 36 games. "I'm pretty sure everybody is going to be excited, especially when it's going to be loud and the fans are going to be out there. Right now, it's all about fun … families, kids, wives, girlfriends, so it's always good.

"Tomorrow's going to be a new year and it's going to be a new day. It's going to be a huge two points for us. Mentally, it's going to be a very important game for us because we're going to play one of the best teams in the League. It's going to be a huge game for us. "

Chicago (25-10-2) has won back-to-back games and was 10-2-1 in December. But as well as the Blackhawks have been playing, they know Thursday presents a challenge. Not only must they brave whatever elements they'll face playing outdoors, but they'll encounter a team that has been playing better of late and one they play twice a season. Washington won 3-2 at Chicago on Nov. 7.

"Everyone's probably seen all those episodes on TV, they've probably seen the buildup towards this game," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said, referring to the "Road to the Winter Classic" on EPIX. "They're playing well and so are we. I think we've had a great month since that road trip back in November. We're looking forward to this. I think anytime you play an Eastern Conference team, especially if they're playing well, it's always going to be tough. You never really know what you're going to get because you don't see those teams too often. But for the most part, you focus on what you've been doing well, and hopefully it's enough. I think we'll be ready to play the same way we've been playing and get a little bit more energy considering the situation."

The Blackhawks will be playing their third outdoor game Thursday; they lost to the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field at the 2009 NHL Winter Classic and defeated the Penguins at Soldier Field last March in an NHL Stadium Series game.

"It's exciting," Chicago right wing Patrick Kane said. "You see this game on the schedule, it's definitely one of the first games circled, especially at this time of year. It's kind of almost the midway point of the season and it's something you can look forward to, especially when you get out there. It almost feels like a playoff atmosphere with it obviously being the Winter Classic and being outside. There's a lot of media and it's such a big event. We enjoy it."

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said, "We're definitely a fortunate organization and team to get a chance to play in more than one outdoor game. The setting, the opportunity, the thrill, and being in that fresh-air environment is second to none. Last year at Soldier Field, the snow, I don't know how many inches we got during the game, that was one you'll never forget. The first one at Wrigley was special as well.

"This is a beautiful venue here. I think everybody's looking forward to it tomorrow. It's a privilege, an honor; you have to take advantage of it because it's very special."

Quenneville said he expects a very competitive game, given the improved play of each team over the past month. Washington has done a solid job of adapting to Trotz's system in recent weeks and has become more committed to playing responsibly in its own end of the ice.

"We saw them earlier and I think both teams were probably OK at that stage," Quenneville said. "I think in the last month or so, both teams have won a lot of key games and it seems like their games are as good as they've been at any point all year long. It's a dangerous game. When you're playing [Trotz's] team, they play hard [and] they play the right way. They try not to give up much and that's the way their team is progressing. Ourselves, we hope to push it a little bit and try to score. It'll be a good contest and I'm sure everybody's excited about it."

But when the puck drops, Trotz is hopeful his players will remain focused on the task at hand.

"This is such a spectacular event, but the bottom line for the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks are these are big points in the standings," Trotz said. "I know we can't afford to give up any points to anybody."