CHICAGO – No introductions needed.
Not for the conditions, not even for two of the NHL’s best teams facing off for the first time in two-plus years.
Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins take on Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks Saturday night at Soldier Field in the finale of the successful NHL Stadium Series.
The forecast calls for light snow and temperatures in the teens, but each team has some experience with the pratfalls of playing outside.
Chicago lost 6-4 to rival Detroit in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Crosby had the winning shootout goal when visiting Pittsburgh beat Buffalo 2-1 in the first Winter Classic in 2008, but the Penguins lost 3-1 to Washington when they hosted the 2011 game at Heinz Field.
Now the Blackhawks and Penguins return to the great outdoors for a possible Stanley Cup preview. Each team had a chance to practice on the ice at the home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears Friday.
“Very unique events being able to play outdoors,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said this week. “They’re special and unique, at the same time you’re playing a National Hockey League game and two points are on the line. You’re playing against the defending Stanley Cup champions and a very good team in the Chicago Blackhawks.
“It will be unique getting out there, I’m looking forward to some cold weather, maybe some wind coming off the lake.”
The prime-time showdown is the first meeting for two of the NHL’s marquee franchises since Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory on Dec. 20, 2011. It’s their first game in Chicago since Patrick Kane had the only shootout goal in the Blackhawks’ 3-2 win Feb. 20 of that year.
While scheduling and the league’s most recent labor dispute have kept the teams apart, the players are plenty familiar with one another.
Team captains Crosby and Toews face off for the first time in an NHL regular-season game after leading Canada to the gold medal in the Sochi Olympics last weekend.
Crosby, Toews and Penguins forward Chris Kunitz scored in their country’s 3-0 victory in the final against Sweden, which included Marcus Kruger, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson of the Blackhawks.
Penguins defensemen Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik played with Kane on Team USA, which was coached by Bylsma.
“They have that front-end talent, they have D that move the puck, they have good goaltenders,” Kunitz said of the Blackhawks. “They’ve been a team to beat in the West for a long time. It’s somebody we didn’t get a chance to play last year that eventually won the Cup. We’d like to challenge ourselves and know what it takes to beat the champions. I think it will be entertaining and a fast-paced game.”
The first NHL game at Soldier Field also features two teams in need of a win. The Penguins are coming off a 6-5 shootout loss to Montreal, while the Blackhawks lost 2-1 at the New York Rangers on Thursday night. Chicago, which almost tied the game against the Rangers in the final seconds, is playing its first game in the Windy City since Jan. 26.
“Everybody is excited for Saturday,” center Peter Regin, who scored the only goal against New York, said Thursday night. “Obviously we were hoping to get a different outcome tonight, but we play in two days. That is the good thing about the NHL, you play every second night, so it’s not so long before you can redeem yourself.”