For Penguins, taking it outside requires some adjustments
PHILADELPHIA — As he manned his Lincoln Financial Field net at practice for the NHL Stadium Series matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers scheduled for Saturday night, goalie Matt Murray was first struck by the similarities to, not the differences from, a regular indoor rink.
“I’ve only played in one (outdoor game), so I’m no real expert but the ice is the same size,” Murray said. “Just the overall vibe of the stadium is the only thing that’s different. The ice is all the same. I don’t know how much of a difference there really is.”
The eye black smeared on Murray’s face told a different story, though.
As much as players try to approach a Stadium Series event like any other regular-season game, there are some adjustments required to play outdoor hockey successfully.
Chief among them is compensating for weather and ice conditions.
While technology has advanced to the point where temporary outdoor rinks provide more-than-adequate ice quality for NHL play, pristine indoor conditions cannot be replicated. Rain, snow or a rise in temperatures can make maintaining ice quality difficult.
As such, players have developed a mantra for outdoor play: keep it simple.
“The ice condition is always going to be a factor,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “If it’s ugly, you want to simplify things.”
For skaters, that means shooting rather than deking around the net. It means dumping a puck into the corner rather than trying to beat a defenseman one-on-one at the blue line. It means clearing a puck off the glass rather than trying to thread a pass through the middle of the ice.
Goalies, meanwhile, must keep their heads on a swivel.
“The puck tends to bounce sometimes, especially when the ice gets a little slushy or a little chalky or whatever,” Murray said. “You just gotta be ready for a shot at all times and just try to be on your toes because weird bounces can happen out there, too. It’s just different. You’ve just got to be ready for anything.”
Because of the potential for those weird bounces, it’s fair to wonder if outdoor games should be contested late in the year when teams are locked in serious playoff battles.
Coming into Saturday, the Penguins barely were holding onto a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference standings. They desperately needed two points. They were coming off a terrible performance in a 4-0 loss to San Jose on Thursday. They needed to make some improvements.
Both quests were complicated by taking it outside.
Ultimately, it did the Penguins no good to ponder that conundrum. Their task was to figure out how to play outdoor hockey better than their opponents.
“I think that’s what you have to find,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “For guys that have played in them before, hopefully, that’s something they can use: their experience. At the end of the day, we have to find a way to win a hockey game. However you need to prepare to do that is the most important thing. It can bring out the best in you, too.”
To that end, the Penguins could lean on Jake Guentzel, who was the No. 1 star in the team’s previous outdoor game against the Flyers two years ago at Heinz Field.
“I just think you gotta be simple,” Guentzel said. “You can’t do too much. You’ve got to be smart with it and just take what’s there.”
Or they could turn to Chad Ruhwedel, a San Diego native who scored the game’s final goal against the Flyers two seasons ago.
“We’re not used to playing when weather can be a factor or the ice conditions and stuff like that,” Ruhwedel said. “It’s keeping it simple, play north-south and stay within our means, for sure.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .