The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins are scheduled to face off shortly after 8 p.m. on Saturday night, outdoors under the lights at Heinz Field.
But if you’ve been anywhere in the Northeast this week, you know that “unseasonably warm” is a euphemism that doesn’t even begin to explain the beautiful weather we’re having. While it’s been great for picnics and baseball, it’s not exactly ideal for playing an ice hockey game outdoors.
So will the Flyers vs. Penguins Stadium Series game be the first to be severely impacted by weather? Let’s see. First, here’s the forecast for Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday this week:
Temperature itself shouldn’t be a problem
Highs of 75 degrees and 68 degrees are certainly problematic, but keep in mind that the NHL can indeed make ice in warm temperatures. In January 2014, the Kings and Ducks played a game at Dodger Stadium on a day where the daytime temperature reached near 80. By game time, the temperature was down in the low 60s and high 50s — close to what we see in the forecast for this Saturday in Pittsburgh.
The league and it’s ice guru, Dan Craig, handle this by mostly operating at night, slowly building the thickness of the ice by consistently spraying the ice for days leading up to the game.
"When we make the ice in warm locations, we change our schedule to account for the sun," Craig told AccuWeather.com last year when preparing for a game in Denver. "We put thermal tarps on the ice during the day, and work overnight, all night, when the temperatures decrease in order to make the ice. Plus, the game will be played at night, after sundown to allow for optimal conditions."
With that said, the temperature itself shouldn’t be an issue. The NHL has dealt with this exact scenario in the recent past.
But the rain ...
Back in 2011, ironically also at Heinz Field, the Penguins vs. Capitals Winter Classic was delayed from a 1 p.m. start to an 8 p.m. start due to rain. The game ultimately went off without a hitch (aside from some minor puddling) but we could see a similar situation this weekend as well.
Let’s talk first about Friday, when both teams are scheduled to practice on the outdoor ice in the afternoon. The Penguins have a 2:15 p.m. practice on the schedule, while the Flyers have a 5 p.m. practice scheduled. If it’s raining at any time during those practice sessions, the teams will probably have to take it inside somewhere.
That brings us to the overnight rain in the forecast Friday evening into Saturday afternoon, which could cause a headache for the ice crew as they make that last minute prep. If the rain comes down gradually, it’s not much of a problem since ... you know, it’s water. It gets cold and simply becomes more ice. But if it comes down quickly, even if it’s light, it can re-freeze and make the ice a bumpy safety hazard. If it comes down fast and hard, it’ll create puddles. You can’t really skate or move a puck in puddles.
It would be an embarrassment for the NHL to play a game on national television that looks like this:
Start of the 2nd period. pic.twitter.com/VQHPzZZpK2— Tom Gazzola (@TomGazzola) January 8, 2017
(I still can’t believe the AHL let them play like that.)
The tl;dr version of all this is that we’ll have to keep watching the weather forecast. While the current forecast calls for the rain to subside before puck drop, there’s always the chance that the weather conditions impact the ice building process this week. And when it comes to game day, there’s always the chance that the forecast shifts to something that creates less-than-ideal playing conditions.
The NHL has never had to cancel or move the date of an outdoor game due to weather, so you could look at this thing in one of two ways: don’t bet against them, or maybe their luck has run out. Guess we’ll find out in a few days.