AP Sports

Hockey One. Hockey Two. Two outdoor NHL games at MetLife Stadium with playoff implications

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Two games in two days. A concert. Four Metropolitan Division rivals separated by about a 100-mile corridor that runs from New York to Philadelphia. Roughly 140,000 fans sitting in bone-chilling temperatures waiting to shout for a goal or great save.

Hockey is coming back to the New Jersey Meadowlands in a big way this weekend with MetLife Stadium serving as the venue for the NHL’s Stadium Series.

The New Jersey Devils are scheduled to play the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night and the Rangers and Islanders will face off Sunday afternoon in an all-NYC contest.

While these so-called pond-hockey games has been on the league’s program annually since 2008, this installment may be a little different. These games will influence the playoff hopes for all the teams with less than two months left in the regular season.

The Rangers have a little wiggle room at the top of the division but the Flyers, Devils and Islanders are in a tight fight for playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. None can afford an off night, even in what might be a once-in-lifetime game for some players.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly wasn’t sure if any of the 39 previous outdoor games had as much playoff implication.

“That always means a good game or good games, as the case may be. I think that’s fantastic,” Daly said Wednesday as work crews were putting in the tempered glass around the recently installed rink that runs between the 17-yard lines.

Hall of Famer goaltender Martin Brodeur is quite familiar with the Meadowlands. After the Rockies moved from Colorado to New Jersey for the 1982-83 season, the sport complex served as the Devils’ home for 25 years before leaving for Newark in 2007-08. Each of the team’s three Stanley Cups (1995, 2000 and ’03) were won in the former wetlands.

In a little more than two years, the Meadowlands will have another big game, the World Cup Final.

Brodeur, who started for the Devils in an outdoor game at Yankee Stadium against the Rangers in 2014, said the organization wants the players to embrace the game.

“It’s no different in the Stanley Cup Finals,” Brodeur said. “If they are able to adjust to this, when it’s time for them to deal with the Stanley Cup Final they’ll see that it’s the same thing. It’s a lot of distractions. You gotta block those noises.”

It’s the first time the league scheduled outdoor games on consecutive days with fans. The February 2021 in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, had no fans because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yankee Stadium was the site for two games in 2014 but over three days.

“It’s something that you circle on the calendar when you find out you’re going to be involved in one and try your best to treat it like another game,” Flyers forward Travis Konecny said.

For many, it’s a way of bringing back warm feelings. It reminds them of either playing with family or friends, when sides were chosen by throwing sticks in the middle of the ice for selection.

A lot of it had to do with where you lived.

Devils coach Lindy Ruff grew up on a cattle ranch in Alberta, Canada. When the pond froze, he and his brothers hit the ice and played with hard sponge puck. When it got warmer and the loft in the barn was clear of hay, they played there, using balled socks sewed together as the puck.

“You could shoot really hard. It didn’t hurt anybody,” Ruff quipped. “I didn’t patent it, but I think I should have.”

Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky grew up in New York City and played roller hockey with his brother.

“So just being outside and watching a hockey game is going to bring back a flood of memories for my family and for me,” he said.

Growing up in Montreal, Brodeur was a regular at Parc Ferland after finishing his homework.

“We played hockey till dinner time,” the NHL’s all-time winningest goaltender said. “And sometimes, if I was good enough, I was able to go back after dinner.”

Whatever happens this weekend, it’s a memory most players won’t forget. Vegas Golden Knights forward enjoyed the experience on Jan. 1 despite losing to Seattle 3-0.

Vegas forward Keegan Kolesar called the game hectic but historic.

“It was just something that I’ll carry for the rest of my life,” he said.

The event Saturday will feature a pre-game concert by the Jonas Brothers, plus a fan festival during the weekend.

“We need to make sure that every person that walks in that building leaves and says: ‘Wow, that was one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever been at,’” said NHL executive vice president Steve Mayer. “The same for those on TV.”

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AP sports writer Stephen Whyno and freelancers Allan Kreda and Willie Ramirez contributed to this report.

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