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NHL rises to occasion with epic Stadium Series weekend success

NHL: Stadium Series-New York Rangers at New York Islanders
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The NHL gambled on New Jersey and the Metro-New York area, and came up aces with a pair of spectacular Stadium Series games on consecutive days at MetLife Stadium.

Filling an 80,000 seat football stadium for one outdoor hockey game is a massive challenge. Staging two games inside the same stadium within 24 hours is epic.

Yet, the NHL handled the weekend games at the home of the NFL’s Jets and Giants flawlessly. And they were rewarded with 150,00 hockey fans total in attendance, not to mention a pair of memorable electric games.

New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin admitted it all had him a bit emotional after his overtime goal capped an incredible late rally to defeat the rival Islanders 6-5 Sunday afternoon.

“The atmosphere was electric,” Panarin said. “It was something I couldn’t compare with anything else. I had to hold back tears because it was that much of a spectacle.”

Devils get party started early in outdoor win against Flyers on Saturday

NHL: Stadium Series-Philadelphia Flyers at New Jersey Devils
Feb 17, 2024; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New Jersey Devils right wing Tyler Toffoli (73) celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period in a Stadium Series ice hockey game at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

It was no less so the night before, when Nico Hischier scored on a breakaway just 32 seconds into the New Jersey Devils’ 6-3 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

“I was dialed in throughout the game, but the last minute I took it all in,” Devils goalie Nico Daws explained. “It’s different. Obviously, without a roof, it’s a different kind of noise. You could almost feel it.”

Saturday featured a sea of red in the stands as Devils fans packed the stadium in their home state. There were Flyers fans there, too, and they could be heard for each of Owen Tippett’s goals. But this was a night for New Jersey, the first outdoor game in the Garden State. And just the second outdoor game for the Devils, who lost to the Rangers 7-3 in the 2014 Stadium Series at Yankee Stadium.

“It was awesome, what a night,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “Everything was done to a tee. 70,000 fans in the stands. We pull up in the bus, there was probably 40,000 people in the parking lot already, tailgating … great atmosphere. And our fans got rewarded with a heckuva game by our hockey club.”

The Flyers arrived dressed like Rocky, wearing gray sweatpants and sweatshirts, with knit caps and taped hands. The Devils one-upped them, arriving wearing Sopranos-style sweatsuits and gaudy pinky rings and gold chains.

Devils forwards Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt even posed for photos holding cups of espresso, with their pinkies in the air, another nod to the Sopranos.

“We just came up with that idea in the morning,” Meier said with a laugh pregame. “It was very spontaneous and very fitting. I’m ready to go. I have two espressos in my system already!”

The Jonas Brothers played a concert before hockey took center stage Saturday. The conditions were good, cold and not too windy, and the ice was in decent shape.

Then the Devils stole the show, with Hischier, their 25-year-old captain leading the way with two goals and an assist.

“The little things stood out,” Meier said when the game was over. “The Anthem was really cool, fireworks. Just the whole day, and (Friday) too, when the guys had their families here (for practice and a family outdoor skate). … It’s the stuff before and after the game that’s special and different. Overall, a great experience and a huge win for us.”

Rangers enjoy ‘unbelievable’ Stadium Series experience against Islanders

NHL: Stadium Series-New York Rangers at New York Islanders
Feb 18, 2024; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Rangers players celebrate after defeating the New York Islanders during the overtime period of a Stadium Series ice hockey game at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Rangers forward Chris Kreider, known for his serious demeanor, stressed that an event like this is only “a positive experience if you win.”

That may or not be 100 percent true. For most players and coaches it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity And those from the four teams here this weekend praised the League for putting on such a great show.

Of course, the Rangers probably felt a lot better about the experience Sunday after rebounding from a 4-1 deficit in the second period and a 5-3 hole late in the third to force overtime on power-play goals scored by Kreider and Mika Zibanejad that would’ve blown the roof off the building had there actually been a roof.

Most of the 79,600 in attendance for the Sunday matinee were Blueshirts Faithful. And the explosion of noise they created when Zibanejad ripped home the tying goal with 1:29 remaining in regulation and again when video review upheld Panarin’s winner 10 seconds into OT was really beyond words.

“Hearing our fans, even, before the game, just when we were playing some soccer, and seeing them on the way in, this is definitely at the top of my list of experiences and games and memories I will take with me forever,” Zibanejad said.

The Rangers arrived on firetrucks and were escorted into the stadium by members of the FDNY. A nice touch, to say the least. Rangers greats Mark Messier and Henrik Lundqvist were on hand as were Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier from the Islanders’ dynasty from 1980-83.

It was a clear, crisp afternoon, that not even a delayed start due to sun glare could mar. And then the game, the first meeting since Dec. of 2022 for these rivals whose arenas are just 20 miles apart, was riveting.

“The environment was awesome, the weather was great, two teams played hard … it was unbelievable,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said.

Rangers captain Jacob Trouba was blown away by it all.

“I thought [the NHL] did a fantastic job,” he said. “The amount of people is pretty shocking.”

That’s what the NHL does with these outdoor spectacles. And the teams come through time again, 41 NHL outdoor games and counting now after a simply perfect weekend in the middle of the season.

“[The League] picked the right opponents to play against each other,” Laviolette explained. “The venue couldn’t have been any better. It was a great night for hockey. I think the League is pretty on point with what they do.”

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