Penguins have no choice but to treat outdoor game as serious business
PHILADELPHIA — As the Pittsburgh Penguins practiced Friday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field in preparation for their Stadium Series game against the Philadelphia Flyers, a wave of pleasant nostalgia came over goalie Matt Murray.
In his mind, he was a kid again, breathing in the cold air of Thunder Bay, Ontario.
“My uncle had a pond in his backyard that we used to play on. That’s kind of where it all got started,” Murray said. “Used to go to the outdoor rinks with my buddies. We would skip school sometimes and go to the outdoor rinks … ”
When the puck drops Saturday night between the Penguins and Flyers — weather permitting — those pleasant thoughts will be ripped right away from Murray and his teammates.
The Penguins have forfeited the right to treat the outdoor game as a joyous celebration of the origins of the sport, filled with as much pomp and pageantry as actual competition.
They’re barely hanging onto a playoff position in the Eastern Conference standings. They’re coming off a dismal 4-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night.
They have no choice but to treat the game as a desperate, mano-a-mano struggle for two points they badly need.
“From here on out, every game is going to feel like a playoff game,” Murray said. “No matter who the opponent is. No matter where the game’s being played. It’s just the time of year. That’s where we’re at.”
It won’t be an easy task.
They’ll be facing a desperate opponent. The Flyers’ late-season charge for a playoff spot is reaching the point of no return. They’re seven points back and suffered an equally humbling 5-1 loss to Montreal on Thursday.
The atmosphere will be hostile. Take the frothing horde that usually greets the Penguins at Wells Fargo Center, triple it, move it across the parking lot and let it tailgate all day.
“With the amount of people you can pack into this place, I would expect a challenging game,” captain Sidney Crosby said.
On top of that, the Penguins are hardly firing on all cylinders despite winning four of their last six games. Their special teams are sagging. Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist are locked in deep scoring slumps. They haven’t been particularly hard to play against in a while.
“We don’t have any sort of false notion that we’re in a playoff spot,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We understand that we’ve got to go out and earn it every day. I think our players are well aware of it.”
Defenseman Kris Letang understands the gravity of the situation.
This will be the fifth outdoor game the Penguins have played since the concept was reintroduced in 2008. Does Letang still find it to be a special moment in his career?
“Not really,” he said.
That’s understandable. It’s not like this is Letang’s first outdoor rodeo. How many of these have you played in before, Kris?
“I don’t count them,” he shrugged.
Letang, needless to say, is all business.
“I think we have to approach it the same way we approach every game right now,” he said. “We have 21 games left. I think every one of them is really important.”
In the end, perhaps there’s a middle ground the Penguins can find between Murray’s dreamy nostalgia and Letang’s dour pragmatism.
Perhaps Hornqvist has found it.
“You need to have fun to win,” he said. “We just need to find ourselves. Last game was not our best, and we all know it. I think this is a great opportunity for us to have some fun and embrace this atmosphere and make sure we do all the little things right out there. Then we’re going to come out on the right side, I think.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .