Skip to Content

Sometimes An Outdoor Hockey Game Still Delivers

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - FEBRUARY 18: Goaltender Igor Shesterkin #31 of the New York Rangers makes a save on a shot attempt by Matt Martin #17 of the New York Islanders during the first period of the 2024 Navy Federal Credit Union Stadium Series game between the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders at MetLife Stadium on February 18, 2024 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL's outdoor games have reached the saturation point where they all sort of blur together. The novelty has worn off, but the opportunity to draw an NFL-sized gate and an NBA-regular-season-sized TV rating means there's only ever going to be more of them, not fewer. All you can really ask for from one is some nice visuals, and some weirdness. This weekend's two games at New York New Jersey Stadium didn't promise the former: An enormous AC unit plopped into some wetlands is not exactly Lake Tahoe when it comes to views. But Sunday's Rangers-Islanders tilt managed to deliver on the action, providing one of the wildest games of the season.

The Stadium Series—not to be confused with the Heritage Classic, and certainly not with the Winter Classic; bite your tongue!—had its share of weirdness. There were actors pretending be to be parkgoers, in a tribute to those classic New Jersey parks(?) we all know and love. This went on even during game action: people walking back and forth, or hula hooping, or pushing their scary doll around in a stroller, in a fever dream of simulacral suburbia. At least the corgi was having a good time. Until it got tired.

Puck drop was delayed 45 minutes due to sunshine, a totally unforeseeable condition in an outdoor game. But it started off with a bang, as Erik Gustafsson got the Rangers on the board just 88 seconds in. Matt Martin responded on the ensuing faceoff by challenging the biggest guy to a fight: 6-foot-7 Matt Rempe, making his NHL debut, in his very first shift. Martin paid the kid a great compliment after their scrap, telling him his reach was longer than Zdeno Chara's.

The momentum-swing staged fight worked! They never work. But the Isles scored thrice in 3:14, including goals from Bo Horvat and Mat Barzal 16 seconds apart. An Anders Lee power-play goal a minute into the second made it 4-1 Isles, and it looked like we were on our way to a laugher. But: there are two types of outdoor games. There are ones with shitty ice, where players are constantly losing an edge and the puck is bouncing and no one scores. Then there are the ones where maybe the goalies have trouble with the lights and skaters are maybe a little loose and treat it like an exhibition, and everybody scores. This was the latter. And if a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey, a three-goal lead must be downright treacherous.

Vincent Trocheck scored a pair to cut the Rangers' deficit to one heading to the second intermission, but the Isles got one back to start the third. That's where it stayed until the 16th minute, when Chris Kreider deflected an Artemi Panarin shot to make it a one-goal game. Then, with the goalie pulled and a 6-4 man advantage on the power play, Mika Zibanejad scored from a low angle from his office along the goal line. Tie game.

Overtime did not last long. Panarin forced a turnover in the slot, then: chaos. The puck bounced off a sliding Noah Dobson, then off Ilya Sorokin's back, then trickled across the goal line. It required a review, but it was a good goal: NHL rules state that if the defense dislodges the net during a scoring chance, the goal counts if it goes in where the cage used to be. "I don't remember that goal because I got flooded with a wave of emotions, but I'm 80 percent sure that it was a goal," Panarin said.

The Rangers partied like it was May and not February. (I love all the little hops, and Igor Shesterkin doing his version of Panarin's celebratory high kick.) And why not? Coming back from three down to win 6-5 is a big deal. Beating your local rival, in a game you can rub in their fans' faces for years, is a big deal. Winning your seventh straight is a big deal. Doing all that under the lights in front of 80,000 people is a bigger deal.

"It was a wild experience," Trocheck said. “I had to hold back tears just because it was that much of a spectacle,” Panarin said. Outdoor games are not played out; they're just regular games, magnified. When a boring game gets that much hype, it feels especially sour. But when something this exciting and ludicrous gets the showcase treatment, it's that much better for it. The players aren't jaded. How could anyone be, after a game like that?

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter