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NHL players laud ‘electric’ atmosphere of Stadium Series games

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Staging 40 outdoor games over the last 17 seasons leaves the NHL with the challenge of ensuring a unique event doesn’t lose some of its luster by becoming just another annual occurrence.

If this weekend is any indication, the answer is to pit local rivals in football stadiums.

More than 150,000 fans filed into MetLife Stadium, where the home of the NFL’s Giants and Jets hosted a pair of Metropolitan Division clashes in the Stadium Series. The New Jersey Devils beat the Philadelphia Flyers 6-3 on Saturday night before the New York Rangers stormed back from a two-goal third-period deficit to stun the New York Islanders, 6-5, in overtime Sunday.

The attendance total of 150,018 is the second-largest tally for consecutive NHL outdoor games behind only 2014, when Michigan Stadium hosted an outdoor-record 105,491 fans for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 1 before 54,099 fans attended the Anaheim Ducks’ 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25.

Players and coaches were impressed with the sight lines at MetLife Stadium, the adrenaline surge they got from performing in the three-deck facility and how the noise was uniquely contained despite its open-air nature.

“Rowdy crowd, great energy, great atmosphere, great setup,” said Islanders center Brock Nelson, who played in a 2014 game against the Rangers at Yankee Stadium. “Quite a bit different than the one we had at Yankee Stadium.”

With each team located within easy driving distance of MetLife Stadium, the two games provided everyone some semblance of a home-ice advantage and the opportunity to infuse the game with the identity of their respective areas.

New Jersey and Philadelphia paid homage to their markets’ fictitious entertainment icons Saturday, when the Devils entered MetLife Stadium wearing Sopranos-esque track suits and the Flyers dressed like Rocky Balboa.

On Sunday, the New York teams arrived accompanied by local police and fire departments. (Perhaps having singer Billy Joel — a Long Island icon concluding a record-setting residency at Madison Square Garden — playing piano on a firetruck crammed with 40-odd players was a logistical impossibility.)

The atmosphere seemed festive and friendly, with usual rival fan bases enjoying each other’s company in a unique setting. The hundreds of tailgates scattered around the cavernous parking lots at MetLife included fans in different jerseys mingling and consuming food and beverages.

“It’s 30 degrees and you probably have 40,000 people in the parking lot — drinking Diet Coke, probably,” Devils head coach Lindy Ruff said with a grin Saturday night. “I mean, what a day. Use a football stadium to tailgate before a game like that. I thought it was so well done.”

On Sunday afternoon, a Rangers fan waved while being serenaded with “Let’s Go Islanders!” chants on an escalator. At a three-row deep line for merchandise, an Islanders fan gave advice to a Rangers fan on how to get a better deal on apparel after the games.

While Rangers fans seemed to outnumber Islanders fans, a similar roar rose after each of the 11 goals Sunday afternoon and evening.

“Honestly, I have to say the atmosphere was electric,” said Rangers left winger Artemi Panarin, who scored the game-winning goal Sunday night. “It was something I couldn’t compare anything else to. I had to hold back tears just because it was that much of a spectacle. And once again, I’d like to thank the fans for giving it that electric feeling, that wave of emotion.”

Teammate Mika Zibanejad, seated next to Panarin, grinned.

“How am I going to top that?” Zibanejad asked.

After this weekend, that’s the NHL’s task.

–Jerry Beach, Field Level Media


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