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Temps in 50s, rain threaten Classic

Early forecasts call for unseasonably warm temperatures and rain Saturday, but the NHL plans to exhaust all options to play the 2011 Winter Classic hockey game at Heinz Field this weekend.

An NHL official confirmed Sunday that a "long window" exists in which to play the outdoor game between the Penguins and Washington Capitals, scheduled for 1 p.m. New Year's Day.

If the game cannot be played Saturday, the league has reserved Heinz Field for Sunday and will attempt to play the game then, according to an e-mail from Jamey Horan, NHL vice president of player development/event communications.

If the game cannot be played Saturday or Sunday, it will be rescheduled for later in the season in Consol Energy Center. No details were available regarding ticketing or refunds.

According to AccuWeather, Saturday's high temperature will be 53 degrees. The normal high for Jan. 1 is 36 degrees. The forecast calls for a high of 41 degrees Sunday.

Unseasonably warm temperatures are not a primary concern because of an elaborate refrigeration system that cools the outdoor ice rink, NHL operations facilities manager Dan Craig told the Tribune-Review last week.

Regardless of the air temperature, the playing surface will be kept at 22 degrees, Craig said.

"The aluminum flooring and refrigeration system is very efficient," he said. "We can tweak the (ice) temperature within 30 minutes."

Steady rain, however, can cause problems. It won't immediately freeze, and the accumulating water could flood the rink's surface, Craig said. After the water does freeze, it could create an uneven surface, possibly risking the players' safety, he said.

AccuWeather is calling for three hours of rain and a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms Saturday. The forecast worsens Sunday, with 12 hours of rain in the forecast, according to AccuWeather.

"There are a lot of variables we have to balance to get where we want to be, and we are always keeping in mind players' safety," Craig said.

In addition to rain, he said, swirling winds and the reflection from sunshine present other potential problems for the outdoor rink, which is expected to be completed today.

A practice day is scheduled for Friday, but Craig said Thursday is an "important" date in the rink preparation process.

"December 30th is when we dial in," he said. "We'll be at the level of ice we want at that point, and we'll start to make adjustments accordingly."

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