Pittsburgh warming up for Classic

PITTSBURGH -- Will the puck drop Saturday?

That was the question Wednesday as preparations continued for the NHL's Winter Classic. The forecast for the New Year's Day game pitting the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field called for 53-degree temperatures and a 100 percent chance of rain showers.

The NHL has come a long way in how it prepares for its annual outdoor game but one thing it still can't control is Mother Nature. So far the previous three outdoor games have been played without weather postponement. But Saturday's weather forecast is the most pessimistic outlook in the event's history.

The league has a detailed contingency plan to deal with weather-related concerns. A league official told ESPN.com on Wednesday that 8 p.m. ET is how long it would wait for the puck to drop so as to protect the broadcast window for NBC's "Saturday Night Live" at 11:30 p.m. ET. Should the game not be played Saturday, a league official confirmed to ESPN.com that the puck would drop Sunday at 12 p.m. ET.

The league's criteria in determining whether the game can be played Saturday is threefold: the safety of the players, the safety of the fans and the quality of the ice surface.

As for the ice surface itself, there were no worries there Wednesday.

"We're in good shape," NHL ice guru Dan Craig said Wednesday in an interview with ESPN.com and The Canadian Press at Heinz Field.

Terrific weather since the league's ice-making crew began work at Heinz Field on Dec. 23 has produced near perfect conditions to build the rink.

On Wednesday the ice surface was a little soft because of the sunlight.

"We haven't had a situation like this [in previous Winter Classics] where we had direct sunlight on the surface for three to four hours," Craig said. "I intentionally left things uncovered. I wanted to see how the sheet was going to react. I wanted to see what was going to happen in case we do have a nice warm day."

Saturday's nasty forecast doesn't worry Craig.

"Talk to us 24 hours out and really see where the weather pattern is coming from," Craig said.

"But there's no moisture that's heavy enough right now that's going to slow down the process of preparing the sheet of ice," Craig added.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.