Outdoor game remains 'cool' spectacle

Sign up for one of our email newsletters.Updated 18 hours ago In a lot of ways, Saturday night's Stadium Series matchup between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers at Heinz Field will be just like the first 1,347 games Matt Cullen has played in the NHL....

Outdoor game remains 'cool' spectacle

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Updated 18 hours ago

In a lot of ways, Saturday night's Stadium Series matchup between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers at Heinz Field will be just like the first 1,347 games Matt Cullen has played in the NHL. Same 4-by-6 net. Same 200-by-85 rink. Same rules and regulations.

Except it will be played under the stars in front of 60,000-plus fans, so it will be completely different.

“It's cooler than I expected going into it,” said Cullen, who, at age 40, will be playing his first outdoor game.

In a lot of ways, Saturday night's matchup will be like all the games goalie Matt Murray played on the ponds of Thunder Bay, Ontario, as a kid. Same breeze in his face. Same cool air in his lungs. Same objective —­ to stop the pucks shot at him.

Except his teammates won't be his buddies from down the street, so it will be completely different.

“It's just a little bit different when you've got Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out there and some of the best players in the world,” Murray said.

Saturday night's encounter will be the NHL's 21st outdoor game since the league went all-in on the idea in 2008. The novelty has worn off. The television ratings aren't what they once were.

The concept is still appealing, however, because of the fundamental contradiction at its core.

It's a regular NHL game, one of 82 on any team's schedule, but at the same time, it's a spectacle on par with a big college football bowl game.

“You do want to really embrace the game, embrace how cool it is, but amidst all those theatrics and the setting and the pageantry that is outdoor games, there are still two points in a very hotly contested Metropolitan Division,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “We know how important those two points are. We cannot let that thought process get away from us while the fireworks are going off and the band's playing.”

When it's time to get down to business and the puck is dropped for the opening faceoff, some of the things that might seem like they would throw players for a loop really aren't expected to be an issue.

The sight lines are very different than in an indoor game, but even Murray, a player for whom tracking the puck is a big part of his job description, said it shouldn't be a problem.

“The puck's coming off the ice when it's being shot, not coming from up above, so you don't see much of the background,” Murray said. “It's pretty similar to a normal game. You don't really look outside the glass. The only thing might be a high flip. It's going to be night time, so it might get lost in the night sky I guess, but other than that, it's similar to a normal game.”

The real variable is weather conditions. NHL ice guru Dan Craig has the utmost confidence his ice-making operation can stand up to almost anything Mother Nature throws at him, but there are still question marks.

The AccuWeather forecast at faceoff calls for a temperature of 38 degrees, a 14 percent chance of rain, 22 percent chance of snow and winds around 17 mph.

A combination of those possibilities, especially wind and rain, could affect the quality of play on the ice.

Since he took over as coach, Mike Sullivan has often talked about how speed is his team's ultimate competitive advantage. Certain weather conditions could blunt that advantage.

“There's probably not going to be a ton of pretty plays,” center Sidney Crosby said. “You're talking about playing outside and depending on the conditions, sometimes it rains. I think that's kind of the big thing right now. They're watching for that. In other instances, it's been snow and things like that. So I think you try to keep it simple out there.

“You'd love to be able to make some nice plays and have that type of game, but usually it doesn't work out that way. I think you just have to know the conditions and understand that's part of it.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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