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Outdoor rink a unique setting for PIHL teams

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, 7:24 p.m.
Murrysville Star
Pittsburgh's downtown skyline served as the backdrop for a game between Franklin Regional and Hampton at the Penguins Pond at Highmark Stadium on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012. Lou Raggiunti | Murrysville Star
The Penguins Pond at Highmark Stadium sits just across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. The PIHL has hosted outdoor games there this winter.

Possibly no regular-season PIHL Class A hockey game for Freeport in the past five seasons generated as much intrigue and anticipation as Wednesday's match-up between the Yellowjackets and Mars.

Playoff positioning is certainly on the line when Freeport (8-1-1) and the Planets (8-2-1) meet.

Yellowjackets coach Dave Hepler hopes his players will remember that as they're chasing the puck around a rink that has the city of Pittsburgh as its backdrop.

The Penguins Pond, an outdoor rink in Highmark Stadium at Station Square, is the venue for the Freeport-Mars showdown as well as dozens of other PIHL contests this winter. Such a setting provides extra hype, but it also holds the potential to distract players — and, depending on the weather, it can create less-than-optimal ice conditions.

“It's a little concerning,” Hepler said of the setting for Wednesday's game. “As a coach, I'd probably like it more as an exhibition game, because you don't know what you're going to get. But as a player, I guess you'd want it to count because then it means something. If it's just an exhibition, I don't know if everyone plays with the same intensity.”

Outdoor games became popular in the PIHL following the 2008 debut, in which Bethel Park and Mt. Lebanon met on Feb. 28 of that year for a charity game at South Park. North Park and the Southside Works were sites used in the seasons that followed. Highmark Stadium has provided the PIHL its most picturesque location yet.

Weather will dictate whether Freeport and Mars get their 5 p.m. start time — or a game at all. The latest forecasts call for a mix of sun and clouds, high temperatures in the mid 40s and lows in the low 30s.

Poor conditions led to outdoor game postponements and cancellations for Ford City, Kiski, Kittanning and Plum this winter. Plum's game against North Hills was rescheduled for Thursday, and Ford City's game against Keystone Oaks was rescheduled for Jan. 23.

Kittanning drove to Pittsburgh and began to prepare for its game against Thomas Jefferson on Dec. 17 but learned less than an hour before the 5 p.m. start that the ice was unusable, as almost a half-inch of rain had accumulated in the rink.

“When we got down there, and I saw how bad it was, I was glad they cancelled it,” Kittanning coach Jamie King said. “You don't want anyone getting hurt out there.”

One day after Kittanning's letdown, Deer Lakes and Serra Catholic squared off in one of the Pond's most thrilling games to date.

The Lancers jumped to a three-goal lead in the first period against the favored Eagles, fell behind by a goal early in the third, tied the score with three seconds left in regulation, and then lost, 7-6, in overtime.

“I didn't think we were going to play because of the weather the day before. … The conditions were better than what I expected,” said Deer Lakes coach Todd Luniewski, whose Lancers played at the Penguins Pond in the Southside Works a season earlier.

“I hope we continue to do this for years to come, because it is a lot of fun. And I hope they keep that location, because you really can't ask for a better one.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BWest_Trib.

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