For the past 3 years, the National Hockey League has treated us to a one of kind game on New Year’s Day.  Two NHL teams take over a large outdoor venue and play a regular season game, reminiscent of kids playing on a frozen pond.  Weather isn’t a factor, as the teams have been known to brave extreme cold and snow.  This tradition is known as the Winter Classic.  In case you’re unaware, 2011’s rendition of the Winter Classic features what is arguably the biggest rivalry in hockey today. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals will square off in Pittsburgh, PA at Heinz Feild – the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The whole world will have an opportunity to watch the league’s two prominent stars, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, showcase their abilities.  If it’s anything like their previous meetings, you won’t want to miss it.
A lot can happen between now and January 1.  Injuries, slumps, and recent breakouts will most likely all factor in the game’s line-up.  While there’s always the possibility of new injuries what about the players currently nursing injuries?  Will they be ready to go for the big showdown?  Sure, I believe that most guys would do anything to suit up for a game of this caliber, regardless of nagging injuries, but the bottom line is each team can only have 20 players dressed.  Then there’s the issue with goaltending.  Most would say that Marc-Andre Fluery is a sure bet to tend goal for the Penguins, but who gets the start for Washington?  In the end, the decisions will all come down to the respective coaching staffs.  In this brief article, I give my rundown and predictions on the line-ups.  You can think of it as my line-up wishlist.
Washington Capitals 1st Forward Line:
Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble
If you’re on the east coast and you’ve had a chance to see these three in action, you’ll know that they’re the real deal.  Ovechkin is possibly one of the most talented players in the history of the NHL (I think HBO’s 24/7 refers to him as the best player in the solar system), and Backstrom’s play making skills are the perfect compliment.  Mike Knuble is an extremely likeable, hard-working veteran that was made for this type of game.  I have no doubt in my mind that these three stars will all be dressed for the Winter Classic.
Washington Capitals 2nd Forward Line:
Alexander Semin, Mathieu Perreault, Brooks Laich
Alexander Semin lets his numbers do the talking.  I honestly can’t believe he was a “write-in” on this year’s All Star ballot.  He’s currently in 3rd place (in the entire NHL) for goals with 18 and in 5th place in points with 33.  Brooks Laich is, in my opinion, the heart and soul of the team.  He’s a fan favorite, a solid two-way player, and a staple in the Capitals powerplay.  Youngster, Mathieu Perreault is a name that might be unfamiliar to even some Caps fans.  He was a standout in Hershey (Washington’s minor league affiliate), and he’s shined in every opportunity he’s had to play at the NHL level.  With the recent trade of Tomas Fleischmann to Colorado, the Capitals had room to call up a fresh face.  It just so happened that Mathieu Perreault received that call, and responded by scoring two goals in his first game back.  If he can keep it up, look for him to earn a spot in the line-up on New Year’s day.
Washington Capitals 3rd Forward Line:
Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, Eric Fehr
While Chimera is mainly seen as a gritty, two-way forward, what a lot of folks don’t know is that he just so happens to be one of the fastest skaters in the NHL.  If he’s given the chance, look for him to “fly” on the open ice in Pittsburgh.  Johansson is a rookie center with a ridiculous amount of potential.  Some look at him and say, “He’s just another Swedish playmaker, like Nicklas Backstrom”.  It’s true that he might possess a simliar skill set, but his strong finish is what sets him apart.  It’s becoming evident that he wants to be way more than a “set-up man”.  He’s not afraid to rip shots on net, and his accuracy is improving with each game.  Eric Fehr doesn’t quite put up the numbers that would qualify him to be a top six forward, but he’s a gem on the third line.  He definitely knows how to score in clutch situations.
Washington Capitals 4th Forward Line:
Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, Matt Bradley
This trio is the Caps’ energy line.  They’re known for getting the puck down low and really putting on the pressure.  None of them are snipers, persay, but they still manage to find the back of the net.  Look for them to win a ton of faceoffs, throw their bodies down to block shots, and play an important role on the penalty kill.  Coach Bruce Boudreau has been rotating Matt Hendricks into this line periodically, but Gordon, Steckel, and Bradley have really developed a great chemistry together.  I really hope to see those three on New Year’s Day.
Matt Hendricks, DJ King
While Hendricks has proven himself as an energy line type of guy, he’s the new kid on the block.  I don’t believe he’s as highly skilled as any of the forwards on the 3rd line, and like I said above, I think that 4th line should be set.  DJ King, on the other hand, is only on the squad to beat the living crap out of opposing players.  If someone even looks at Ovechkin wrong, he gets sent out to throw down.  I don’t think that’ll be necessary, as the Winter Classic doesn’t really cater to that type of physical play.  Though the rivalry is strong, so is the mutual respect from both clubs, despite what people would like to think.
Washington Capitals 1st Defensive Pair:
Mike Green, Scott Hannan
Mike Green is billed as one of the league’s top defenseman.  Most true hockey fans know that’s not entirely accurate.  Green’s game would be completely sub-par, if it weren’t for the fact that he scores a tremendous amount of points.  His numbers are right up there with most of the NHL’s top forwards, and his stick handling and skating skills are top notch.  The past 3 Winter Classics to me have seemed more like All Star Games, and that’s an arena in which Green could really excel.  Scott Hannan is a hard-nosed veteran, whom the Capitals just acquired by trading Tomas Fleischmann.  He’s a great linemate for Mike Green; He’ll stay back while Green skates past his own forwards.
Washington Capitals 2nd Defensive Pair:
John Carlson, Karl Alzner
This young duo has surprised the masses.  It’s not normal for a first and second year defenseman to pair up, but these two go way back.  They played a countless number of games together for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League.  Separately, their inexperience is sometimes visible, but together they rarely miss a beat.
Washington Capitals 3rd Defensive Pair:
Tom Poti, John Erskine
Known for his solid, stay-at-home defensive play, Tom Poti is perhaps the best defenseman on the Capitals roster.  He might get burried on the depth chart, but he gets plenty of minutes each and every game, in both 5-on-5 and special teams situations.  It’s plain to see he’s a leader out there, and he plays consistently smart hockey.  Erskine is having a phenominal season.  He’s not known for producing points, but so far, he’s doing just that.  His size allows him to clear players out of the crease with ease, and when he lays into the puck, he’s got a wicked shot.  He’s not one of the Capitals faster skaters, but he gets the job done.  He’s been known to get into a scuffle from time to time, but he’s more reactive.  He always sticks up for his team.  I’d love to see him get a sweater for the Winter Classic.
Tyler Sloan, Jeff Schultz
Tyler Sloan is another one of the Capitals up-and-coming youngsters.  He’s already got his feet wet in plenty of NHL contests.  Normally I’d say seniority rules, but in Sloan’s case – Carslon and Alzner play so well together and the other four d-men flat out trump him.  It’s most unfortunate that when the Caps lace up their skates and take the ice at Heinz Feild, they’ll be without Jeff Schultz.  He broke his thumb last week, and he’ll be out for 4-6 weeks.  He’s regularly Mike Green’s defensive partner, and I believe that his absence will provide a spot for John Erskine.  I condsider “Schultzy” to be one the Capitals most valuable defenseman, and I’m truly disappointed that he won’t be a part of the Winter Classic.
Washington Capitals Starting Goalie:
Semyon Varlamov
We’ve all seen what Michael Neuvirth has accomplished this season, but I still think that Varly is the premier goaltender in Washington.  Neuvirth’s numbers are slightly better, and don’t get me wrong, he’s incredible.  He’s just not as exciting.  When Varlamov is on, he will do everything and anything to keep that puck out of the net.  He stands on his head and flails around, and that’s what the NHL needs on New Years.  I have a feeling that he’ll get the nod from Bruce, and you won’t be disappointed.
Pittsburgh Penguins 1st Forward Line:
Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis
Whether you’re a fan or not, Sidney Crosby is the face of hockey in North America.  In only five seasons, this young star has already won a Stanley Cup (been there twice), won a gold medal at the olympics, won the Art-Ross, Hart and Pearson awards, and was named captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Off the ice, he’s a class act.  Chris Kunitz, has had the benefit of playing on his line for a while now, and he’s definitely taken advantage of it.  Dupuis was just recently added to this trio, and his point production has sky rocketed.  Look for this line to be a key factor on January 1st.
Pittsburgh Penguins 2nd Forward Line:
Matt Cooke, Evgeni Malkin, Arron Asham
Malkin is another huge star for Pittsburgh.  Last week, his knee was bothering him, but I’m sure he’ll take part in the outdoor game.  Cooke and Asham are two tough customers with more skill than the average goon.  I personally can’t stand Matt Cooke, but I can all but guarantee that he’ll have a spot for the Classic.
Pittsburgh Penguins 3rd Forward Line:
Tyler Kennedy, Mark Letestu, Chris Conner
These three youngsters are huge fan favorites in the city of Pittsburgh, and locals know them as “The Buzz” line.  Kennedy emereged as a hero in 2009, during the Pens’ Stanley Cup run.  He scored 3 game winning goals throughout the playoffs, and he’s still an instrumentally clutch player.  Letestu is in his true rookie campaign and has definitely found a place on this line.  Conner brings the speed and the grit, and unless Jordan Staal comes back, he should be a go.
Pittsburgh Penguins 4th Forward Line:
Craig Adams, Max Talbot, Mike Rupp
There’s nothing flashy here.  The Pens’ 4th line will be called upon to shut down the Capitals’ scorers and generate some hard-nosed scoring chances.  Talbot, the most offensively skilled of the three, is also one of the best two-way forwards in the game.
Mike Comrie
Sadly, Mike Comrie isn’t being utilized by the Penguins.  Brought in as a possible 1st or 2nd line forward, he’s now a nightly, healthy scratch.  As much as I’d love to see him take part in the Classic, instead of Cooke or Asham, he’ll most likely be watching from one of the boxes at Heinz Feild.
Pittsburgh Penguins 1st Defensive Pair:
Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang
Brooks Orpik is the pinnacle of what most young defensive players aspire to be.  He hits, he intimidates, and most importantly, he makes sure that no one scores against the Penguins when he’s out on the ice.  I’m sure he’ll be matched up with Ovechkin’s line for the Winter Classic.  Kris Letang is speedy, puck moving, offensive defenseman.  I rank him way higher than the Capitals’ Mike Green, for his defensive play.  He often contributes to the Pens’ powerplay, and he’s one of the most skilled players in the entire league at the shoot out.
Pittsburgh Penguins 2nd Defensive Pair:
Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek
Pittsburgh knows the defensive wins championships, and that’s exactly why they signed both Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek in the offseason.  They’re both 6 year veterans of the NHL, and while they’ve been known to put points, defensive is their specialty.
Pittsburgh Penguins 3rd Defensive Pair:
Alex Goligoski, Deryk Engelland
Goligoski is Pittsburgh’s answer to Mike Green.  His stick handling and offensive skills are on par with most forwards in the NHL.  He’s solid as a quarterback for whatever power play line he’s on, but like Green, his willingness to jump up often lands him out of position.  He just recently was demoted to the 3rd pair.  Engelland is a rookie with size.  He takes pride in being a stay-at-home type defenseman, and with time should be able to really compliment Goligoski’s play.
Ben Lovejoy
Lovejoy is a little younger than Engelland, but a lot more offensive minded.  Coach Dan Bylsma has been rotating those two in and out of the lineup, but I think that he’ll favor Engelland for the Classic.  While Lovejoy paired with Goligoski has the potential to be an offensive explosion, it could also be a liability, and this a game that Pittsburgh is serious about winning.
Pittsburgh Penguins Starting Goalie:
Marc-Andre Fleury
I think everyone knows that “Flower” will be in goal for the Penguins on New Years Day.  Barring a major injury, you’ll see him between the pipes.
That’s my take.  I can’t predict what will take place over three weeks, but I can tell you that I’m counting days to this monumental event.  For those of you with HBO, there’s a new 24/7 mini-series, airing Wednesday night’s at 10:00 PM that will give you an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at both teams leading up to the big game.  The 4-part series starts December 15th.