PITTSBURGH – It was 11 months ago that the NHL officially announced that the Pittsburgh Penguins would play the Philadelphia Flyers outdoors at Heinz Field as part of the annual Stadium Series. Now the puck will finally drop Saturday night between the two longtime rivals, each celebrating their 50th year.
“It’s definitely exciting. You don’t get a chance to play outdoors often,” said Flyers rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov. “I think lots of positive emotions and I think lot of guys will try to enjoy the moment and take everything in, but at the same time we’ll be able to be focused and play our game and try to get the two points.”
After all the hype, all the build up and all the fun of Friday’s family skates, two points are on the line, and they’re important for different reasons to both the Penguins and Flyers.
The Penguins are cruising toward another spring of playoff hockey and are currently chasing the Washington Capitals for tops in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. The Flyers, meanwhile, are fighting for their playoff lives and have tumbled to outside of the wild card picture and currently sit five points behind the New York Islanders for the final spot.
“For us, this is an extremely important game,” said Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds. “We got to get all the points we can possibly get going down the stretch if we want to make the playoffs here. It’s going to be an exciting time, a lot of guys have families here, but we’ve got to stay focused on the goal.”
Being the away team might actually serve the Flyers well for their latest meeting with the Penguins. Road teams have won 14 of the 21 NHL outdoor games since 2003. There are no tickets to be concerned with and their families are staying at a different hotel. The distractions are minimal compared to if this game were being played in Philadelphia.
“We’re here for business. Any distractions, we’ve just got to focus on playing hockey,” said Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
And while the game has its importance, it’s also a unique experience for everyone involved. Some Flyers and Penguins have already suited up for outdoor games in their career, but there are a number who are going through this for the first time, like 40-year-old Matt Cullen.
That’s the challenge for both Dave Hakstol and Mike Sullivan for their respective teams: enjoy it, but don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal.
“It’s a great opportunity for all of us to practice outside, to spend sometime with our families on the ice,” said Sullivan. “It’s a terrific experience to be part of these outdoor games. I’ve had the privilege of being part of two other ones in the past as a coach and they’re great opportunities for our guys. I think we should embrace that.
“Having said that, tomorrow is about a game day, and we’ve got to make sure that we maintain the necessary focus and the right mindset so that we’re ready to play because when the puck drops it’s an NHL hockey game, regardless of where it’s being played.”
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