Penguins warming to cold Soldier Field
CHICAGO — Olli Maatta had a flashback Friday.
During the Penguins' late-afternoon practice on the rink at Soldier Field, Maatta said he thought of his younger days — all of three years ago for the 19-year-old defenseman — when he and schoolmates staged daily outdoor games about a mile from his house in Finland.
“Those games were great,” Maatta said. “Playing outdoors when it's really cold, that's when you develop your passion for hockey.”
Members of the Penguins could not hide their passionate smiles on the eve of the organization's third outdoor game in six years.
Captain Sidney Crosby laughed while joking that he could not remember much from the last one — the Winter Classic at Heinz Field on New Year's Day 2011. That's when a second-period hit from Washington's David Steckel started Crosby's 15-month concussion saga.
Like that game, the one Saturday between the Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks will be played in the evening, weather permitting.
The NHL projects that about 15,000 fans from the Pittsburgh region are in Chicago to attend the game. The Penguins sold 11,500 tickets.
The latest forecast from Channel 11 Severe Weather Center calls for game-time (8 p.m. EST) temperatures around 15 degrees with winds at 15 to 20 mph. Also, about an inch of snow is projected to fall during the game, WPXI meteorologist Scott Harbaugh said.
“The wind will be twice what it was Friday,” Harbaugh said. “With the snow, visibility will be an issue.”
The NHL would postpone the game — there were no plans to cancel as of Friday, executives said — based on players' safety being at risk. However, from the latest forecasts, the league believed the game would go off as planned.
Though cold, temperatures in Chicago warmed Friday from Thursday and helped improve the ice conditions. There were concerns the surface could crack if temperatures continued to hover in the low single digits.
Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi, a veteran of the original Winter Classic at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008, described the ice as “really good.”
It looked too good to pass up for Kris Letang, who was one of several Penguins to skate with family members after practice. Letang had not skated since he was diagnosed with a stroke in late-January.
“The ice was not snowy or chippy,” Letang said. “It was hard, and hard ice is good to play on.”
The surface held form for the Blackhawks' practice, which started about two hours after the Penguins' wrapped.
“It was really good,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “It's just kind of what you're used to (indoors).
“I guess that's one of the things they're trying to control with the cold.”
The rink is positioned between the 20-yard lines of the field, which is covered by heavy-duty plastic squares. A rectangular rink rested in one end zone. Youth players, for pickup games, will use it during the Penguins-Blackhawks contest.
Layers of cotton fabric, intended to look like snow, are spread across the rest of the covered field.
Penguins players arrived at the stadium about 2 p.m. for a practice that started two hours later. They dressed in a room normally used by visiting college football clubs but one that had a distinct feeling of home with Penguins-themed signage and temporary carpeting.
Head equipment manager Dana Heinze and assistant Teddy Richards left Pittsburgh for Chicago at 5 a.m. Tuesday. They arrived about 2 p.m. and set up the room, then hit the road and arrived in back Pittsburgh about 2 a.m. Wednesday so they could work that afternoon practice and a game against Montreal at Consol Energy Center on Thursday night.
“Honestly, I was dreading it,” Heinze said, noting three blizzard-like sequences on his return trip. “But we had to do it to pull off the way we wanted to pull this off for the players.”
Center Evgeni Malkin, whose head was wrapped in a skin-tight hood under his helmet on Friday, told Heinze he liked how the room looked.
Brooks Orpik, a defenseman set to play his third outdoor game with the Penguins, said he liked how the alternate uniforms looked.
The Penguins will wear white jerseys and socks trimmed with their Las Vegas gold and black piping and stripes. The colors, including on the traditional Skating Penguin emblem, were tweaked to show a metallic shine.
“They really came together,” Orpik said.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks are a “measuring-stick opponent” for the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins, Orpik said. Though, he added, “I don't know if you treasure” the opportunity to face such a formidable opponent.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he would. He described this contest as one of “maybe three” that he circled on his calendar when the schedule was unveiled over the summer.
“Before you find out you're playing an outdoor game, you already know you're playing the Blackhawks,” Bylsma said.
“There's the outdoor game and the elements ... but first and foremost it's the Blackhawks, and you're playing a team that's maybe the best in the league.”
Crosby, who shared a post-practice skate with his parents, said he looked forward to finally playing against Toews, the Canadian Olympic teammate with whom he won a gold medal in Sochi, Russia.
The two youngest captains of Stanley Cup teams, Crosby and Toews never have played against each other in an NHL game. Their long-awaited showdown is a big deal for the NHL's first national TV game (NBC) after the Olympics.
Still, as Crosby noted, “The rink feels a little bit small when it's in the middle of a football field.”