The Flyers have two vitally important games to play against Tampa Bay on Tuesday and in Montreal on Thursday before they can focus on their 2019 Stadium Series contest against Pittsburgh at Lincoln Financial Field on Feb. 23. Much can happen between now and then, and the Flyers need every point they can get before Saturday.
As of now, there is a good chance that standout 20-year-old rookie goaltender Carter Hart will be tabbed for Saturday's outdoor game. If so, it will be his first NHL outdoor game but not his first experience with big-stage outdoor hockey.
On Dec. 29, 2017, Hart played a World Junior Championship preliminary round game for Team Canada against Team USA at New Era Field in suburban Buffalo. This time around, while the caliber of opposition will be even higher, the playing conditions will almost certainly be more favorable.
At present, the weather forecasts call for temperatures in the low 40s with relatively calm winds. Barring a major shift, Saturday's conditions will be a stark contrast to what Hart experienced on that afternoon in Buffalo some 13 months and 25 days prior to the Stadium Series.
The temperature at New Era Field was 16 degrees Fahrenheit at opening faceoff of the Canada vs. USA game. Layers of lake snow started falling shortly into the game with freezing fog blanketing the area surrounding the stadium. Ice crews brought out wheelbarrows, shovels and trash cans to remove as much of the accumulating snow from the playing surface as possible. Nevertheless, it was an increasingly uphill struggle for the crews to keep the ice playable. By the third period, visibility was virtually zero for both teams and the most basic of hockey plays were torturous. For goalies, normal saves were anything but routine.
"Oh, man, it was brutal," Hart recalled with a shake of his head and a grin. "Both teams and the goalies were in the same boat but that were the toughest conditions I've ever played under, no doubt about it. Just doing regular things, like seeing the puck, was really hard. Skating was hard. At the same time, it's a pretty unique experience."
Hart can look back wistfully now at that game, which Canada lost 4-3 via shootout in front of 44,592 fans after taking a 3-1 lead into the third period. His team later went on to win the gold medal (in large part thanks to his stellar play throughout the tourney), which took away the sting of the preliminary round loss. At the time, though, it wasn't a laughing matter.
Hart played a strong game, making 33 saves including many of the difficult variety even under normal conditions. The Canadians were outplayed for much of the game. The first USA goal was on a 5-on-3 power play, the second on a 5-on-4 and the third on the next shift that followed as Brady Tkachuk and Scott Perunovich scored goals just 34 seconds apart to force OT. Finally, Tkachuk and Kieffer Bellows scored in the shootout finale.
Things weren't tough only on Hart and Team USA goaltending opponent Jake Oettinger (19 saves on 22 shots). The steady snow and deteriorating ice conditions and visibility made it very difficult for the position players to stick handle, pass or carry the puck as they normally would.
"It was pretty rough, but you just go out and compete to the best of your ability. Like I said, both teams were in the same boat out there. Thankfully, it wasn't an elimination game. We lost that one, but things turned out well for us [winning the gold medal], so you can't complain about it," Hart said.
By comparison, the upcoming Stadium Series game shapes up to be more ideal from a weather standpoint -- not too cold or too warm -- and the NHL ice crews by now have considerable experience in dealing with outdoor rink conditions although there is still a higher degree of unpredictability compared to a standard indoor arena game. On the flip side, Hart will now be facing attacks from the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Flyers will have one full practice on the Lincoln Financial Field ice surface. For the goaltenders, it means short preparation time for dealing with the sight lines at the football stadium and trying to take in some of the nuances that can affect plays, such as how pucks will bounce off the boards on shoot-ins.
Even when players -- goalies and position players alike -- have played in an outdoor game or two before, each one presents different sorts of challenges in terms of playing through the elements and settling into normal "game" mode.
Much has happened for Carter Hart since that snowy late afternoon and early evening at New Era Field.
He finished out his stellar, even historic, junior career with three Western Hockey League goalie of the year awards, two CHL Top Goaltender awards, a WHL Most Valuable Player trophy and World Junior Championship gold medal. This season, he graduated rapidly from the American Hockey League level to win NHL Rookie of the Month honors in January and a Second Star of the Week (week ending Feb. 2) selection.
From here, though, the stakes only get higher and higher. The Stadium Series will be a huge test for the Flyers, with both Philly and Pittsburgh involved in a tight race for a wildcard playoff spot. After that, the trade deadline and stretch drive looms on the other side.
One thing about Carter Hart: that prospect does not intimidate him. The kid is as unflappable and resilient as he is talented.