Innovations allow NHL to stage outdoor games almost anywhere

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Dan Craig sleeps maybe four hours a night leading up to outdoor games. He only goes out to dinner because he can check the status of the ice on his phone.

”Your mind’s always going,” said Craig, the NHL’s vice president of facilities operations.

After staging outdoor games in a deep freeze (Edmonton) and summerlike warmth (Los Angeles), the NHL seems capable of taking hockey outside just about anywhere in the U.S. and Canada knowing the ice will be almost as good as the sheets found inside.

When the Flyers host the Penguins on Saturday night, it will be the 27th NHL outdoor game since 2003. Next season’s Winter Classic is at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where the average high on Jan. 1 is 56 degrees (13.3 Celsius).

No worries, hockey fans.

”We put the parameters out there as into what we feel the challenges are going to be at a certain climate in a certain area and this is what we’re going to run up against,” said Craig, who has worked all but two outdoor games. ”And if we have to go to get different equipment, we go get different equipment. If we need more staff, we just go get more qualified people to come in and give us a hand to make sure that everything works the way it’s supposed to.”

Weather is the biggest hurdle that can’t be controlled. It is instead managed by Craig, his son Mike, senior facilities operations manager Derek King and the 100-person crews that work each game. As he sat on the boards Thursday at Lincoln Financial Field, Craig pointed to the sky and acknowledged the swirling wind was on his mind.

Still, improved technology and techniques learned over the past 15 years have helped perfect the science and execution of making and maintaining outdoor ice.

”It seems like they’ve streamlined the process so they know how to react and how to handle different elements,” said Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk, a veteran of five outdoor games. ”For the last few that I’ve been in, it’s all been pretty good. … If you can start with that, that leads to a better product in the game.”

It starts with a 53-foot refrigeration truck that feeds coolant into aluminum trays set up on the field, and while indoor facilities have ice typically an inch or so deep, outdoor rinks go beyond 2 inches to protect the surface from the elements. Smaller Zambonis have less impact on the ice, and covering the surface with heat-reflecting insulation tarps helps. The ice can be monitored with sensors that provide real-time readings to a smartphone app.

The ideal ice temperature is 22 degrees (-5.5 Celsius), but all was fine in Denver in 2016 when the air temperature was 65 (18.3 Celsius) because officials can just turn the A/C up.

”When we’re monitoring the air temperature we’ll just make the sheet colder,” King said. ”If we can keep it in the in the mid-40s, it would be great. But we’ve got a lot of control. … We have a lot of control of the truck, so we can manipulate our temperatures on the sheet with the air temperature.”

Craig remembers the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor: The snow shoveling started at 5 a.m. and never really stopped. The sun has been just as big an impediment – it delayed the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia because the glare was considered a danger to players. The ice at the 2011 Heritage Classic in Calgary had to be covered because it was so cold there were worries the surface would crack, the most concerned Craig has ever been.

The tarps with air bubbles inside became a mainstay beginning in 2014 at Dodger Stadium to combat the Southern California sun as temperatures soared to almost 80 (26.7 Celsius) in the days before the game.

”Sun was a huge issue for us in just the temperature on the ice, so we kind of came up with a system of how to cover the ice and reflect that sun,” King said. ”We still use those same ideas anywhere we go.”

The Dodger Stadium experience showed the NHL’s ice crew it could adapt to just about any situation. Previous weather dilemmas also taught Craig and his staff they couldn’t just leave snow on the ice like so many nature-made rinks in cold climates, which paid dividends this week in Philadelphia when snow turned to sleet and then rain.

”Everybody’s looking at us like, ‘Why don’t you just leave the snow?’ Well, it’s going to cause us 18 hours of work if we don’t get the snow off, like, right now,” Craig said. ”(If) it happened to rain, the top is going to freeze and then the bottom is going to be nice and soft. Well, no. Where we were, it just goes all the way through and then it freezes to the bottom. Those are the types of things that we have learned over time: how to manage the different circumstances that were put into.”

There are three more outdoor games next season – in Regina, Saskatchewan, Dallas and the Air Force Academy in Colorado – and trips to Nashville and maybe even Las Vegas could be coming someday.

Craig doesn’t see any challenge as too daunting and he is focused on giving players an unforgettable experience.

”They step out there for the first time and they do about three laps around and the grins and their eyes are just phenomenal,” he said. ”They’ve always been in organized hockey, they’ve always been indoors, they’ve always traveled and all of a sudden they get their chance. That’s when you see the guys and you just see them, they’re beaming because this the first time, they’re getting paid for it, they’re playing a game that they love and they’re playing it outdoors where we started.”

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The Buzzer: Campbell steals Tkachuk – Doughty show; Four for Tavares

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Three Stars

1. John Tavares

For the first time in his NHL career, Tavares scored four goals in one game. His four tallies were a mix of luck and skill, with all of them coming from very close in on net.

You can rank Tavares with the likes of Sidney Crosby as a star who tends to score a lot of his goals like grinders: in the dirty areas of the ice, cashing in on rebounds and quick reactions. None of this is to say that Tavares lacks skill, just that he sometimes applies those skills in subtler, more grinding ways.

This post goes into great detail on his great night in specific, and his fantastic first season with Toronto in general.

2. Jack Campbell

There were plenty of bitter moments involving Drew Doughty and Matthew Tkachuk, sometimes sniping and swiping each other, sometimes with just one of those players involved. But this was the closest they got to a fight, which is kind of a bummer:

Instead, Campbell basically stole the show, pitching a 42-save shutout to help the Kings upset the Flames.

This is the second shutout of Campbell’s career, and it’s increasingly looking like the former (mostly disappointing) first-rounder might just find his niche as a backup goalie. Nice story developing here, even if it’s in relative anonymity considering the low quality of this Kings team.

3. Steven Stamkos

Tavares was the free agent who left for Toronto after Steven Stamkos didn’t, so there’s a fun symmetry to the two high-scoring number 91’s generating four points during the same night.

In the case of Stamkos, he got to those four points with two goals and two assists. Stamkos is now tied for fourth in the NHL with Patrick Kane with 41 goals on the season, leaving him four behind Tavares. Stamkos has the edge in total points, however, as his 93 ranks seventh overall.

Highlights of the Night

Mark Scheifele is known for being a “student of the game,” so maybe he’s studied the best ways to sweep would-be goals out of his own net? Does he moonlight as a goalie?

Starting with a great save by Andrei Vasilevskiy, this is a fun watch (unless you’re a Bruins fan), as Nikita Kucherov tied things up for the Lightning. They eventually stunned the B’s in regulation, reminding the hockey world that they’re way, way ahead of everyone else.

Factoids

  • Four players have scored at least 30+ goals in three seasons before reaching age 21: Wayne Gretzky, Jimmy Carson, Dale Hawerchuk, and now Patrik Laine.
  • As tough as this season has been, and as embarrassing as that center-ice goal was, Cory Schneider had a fantastic overall game on Monday. You can make an argument that stopping 45 out of 46 saves ranks as three stars material. Schneider became the second goalie in Devils franchise history to earn multiple wins of at least 45 saves. Glenn “Chico” Resch was the other goalie to do it.
  • This post details the Predators clinching a playoff spot for the fifth season in a row, and perhaps most importantly, Devan Dubnyk, 32, having the same throat guard since he was 17.
  • The Flames hadn’t been shut out at home since March 21, 2018.
  • The Sharks lost in regulation to the Red Wings, which marks San Jose’s sixth consecutive loss. Cause for concern? Cause to gently nudge Erik Karlsson to get back in the lineup?

Scores

TOR 7 – FLA 5
NJD 3 – BUF 1
PIT 5 – NYR 2
TBL 5 – BOS 4
STL 3 – VGK 1
NSH 1 – MIN 0
DAL 5 – WPG 2
LAK 3 – CGY 0
DET 3 – SJS 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Predators clinch spot, deal major blow to Wild’s playoff hopes

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The Minnesota Wild’s offense is starting to stink almost as much as Devan Dubnyk‘s teenaged throat guard.

The Nashville Predators only needed Ryan Johansen‘s shorthanded goal to beat the Wild 1-0 on Monday, as Juuse Saros collected a 29-save shutout. With that, the Predators clinched a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Wild’s postseason hopes look that much grimmer.

With Zach Parise and others out of the lineup of a team that’s already lacking in firepower, it’s easy to understand Bruce Boudreau going for a “clog everything up” strategy. It almost worked, too, as the Wild generated a 29-19 shots on goal advantage, giving the Predators very little room to work with. This wasn’t an easy win for the Predators.

Minnesota simply wasn’t able to generate any margin for error, however, so that Johansen shorthanded goal just 4:32 into the game ended up being the decisive tally.

With the game turning into a grind that felt like a more skilled version of a slugfest from “The Dead Puck Era,” there was time to focus on other things … such as Devan Dubnyk’s throat guard, which might qualify as a biological weapon at this point:

Yes, gross.

The Wild struggled so badly to create offense, Dubnyk seemed to go over his teammates’ heads by trying to earn the equivalent to a delayed penalty advantage … that resulted in Minnesota taking a late penalty.

The Predators failed to score on the ensuing power play, yet the Wild had to kill that penalty fairly late in the game, rather than continuing to push to the same level of aggression for that tying goal.

While the Predators gave themselves a better chance to earn home-ice advantage for the first round (and maybe a shot at the division title), the Wild are at a disadvantage in the West’s bubble races. Take a quick look at how things look as of this writing:

WC 2: Avalanche: 81 points in 76 games, 33 regulation/OT wins

9: Coyotes: 79 points in 76 games, 32 ROW
10: Wild: 79 points in 77 games, 34 ROW
11: Blackhawks: 76 points in 75 games, 31 ROW

Not good.

If Monday’s efforts serve as any indication, the Wild seem likely to keep putting forth a dogged effort to try to earn a playoff berth. They just have to hope they don’t fall painfully short in these races like they did during this 1-0 loss to the Predators.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hats off to Tavares’ fantastic first season in Toronto

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However you feel about John Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t deny how great he’s been during his first season with the team he rooted for as a child.

It’s possible that Monday represented his best game yet with the Maple Leafs.

For the 10th time in his already fantastic NHL career – and already the second time since joining the Maple Leafs – Tavares generated a hat trick. He did so through two periods of Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, and actually added a fourth goal during the final frame as Toronto outgunned the Panthers 7-5. With that, Tavares enjoyed his first-ever four-goal game.

As you can see from the highlights of his hat trick above and the fourth goal below, the goals were very much of Tavares’ trademark: “greasy” goals in the dirty areas in front of the net. If you combined the distance of all four goals, they might only match that single center-ice goal by Sam Reinhart.

Tavares has already crossed the 40-goal barrier for the first time in his career, and the milestones are piling up from there, as this performance pushes him to 45 goals and 86 points in 76 games. Consider the following:

via Getty Images

Impressive stuff.

There’s a lot of angst in the air in Toronto right now, and a win might only do so much to soothe concerns, as a 7-5 win isn’t exactly “pretty.” At least if you’re wanting to tighten things up, as Mike Babcock surely hopes to do heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But imagine if Tavares was a flop, instead of a slam-dunk success, during his first season with the Maple Leafs? Instead, he’s playing at such a level that he might just help Toronto to simply “outscore its mistakes.”

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem like signing Tavares was a mistake.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Center-ice goal is latest low moment for Devils’ Schneider

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The lows have been far, far more frequent for Cory Schneider during the last few seasons, to the point that it was fair to wonder if he’d ever restore his NHL career. Monday represented one of the lowest lows, even if center-ice goals happen to just about all goalies – from the elite to the going obsolete.

Schneider could do little but shake his head after Sam Reinhart‘s bouncing attempt beat him from center ice. You can watch that unfortunate moment in the video above this post’s headline.

That lucky/sneaky goal marks the 20th of the season for Reinhart, who’s quietly been one of the more promising stories of a disappointing finish for the Buffalo Sabres.

It isn’t lost on Hockey Twitter that the New Jersey Devils are probably better off losing, so at least there’s that?

This unfortunate gaffe actually does inspire a look at Schneider’s recent stats, and that’s where there’s at least some muted optimism.

Heading into Monday’s game, Schneider’s managed a promising .920 save percentage in his last 14 games. That’s quite an improvement considering Schneider only played in nine games before February, slogging through a miserable .852 save percentage.

A couple promising months don’t erase a couple very discouraging years for Schneider, but it’s telling that, despite all of these tough recent times, Schneider’s career save percentage is still stellar at .919. The 33-year-old hasn’t been that goalie since 2015-16, but if he could even become a decent 1A/1B goalie, that could give the Devils a considerable boost.

He’ll need to shake off moments like these, though.

Update: That ended up being the only goal Schneider allowed, as he stopped 45 shots in New Jersey’s 3-1 win against Buffalo.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.