Ranking the NHL's 2014 outdoor schedule

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Ranking the NHL's 2014 outdoor schedule

On Jan. 1, the 2014 Winter Classic will kick start the NHL’s outdoor schedule, during which a total of six games will be played in the elements. Here’s how I rank them:

Penguins vs. Blackhawks, March 1, Soldier Field
A Windy City winter wonderland will provide hockey fans a star-studded outdoor classic in what could be a Stanley Cup Finals preview.

Soldier Field, just off the shore of Lake Michigan, could make for a frigid affair in a stadium that produced the Monsters of the Midway. The aerials and scenes of downtown Chicago in the distance will only add to the allure of this game.

The 2009 contest between the Blackhawks and Red Wings at Wrigley Field produced one of the best Winter Classics to date, but this matchup has the potential of topping it.

Pond hockey rating: 10

Ducks vs. Kings, Jan. 25, Dodger Stadium
What makes this game intriguing, perhaps even more than the two teams involved, is the question of whether an outdoor hockey game can actually be played in Southern California.

Temperatures in L.A. late in January range from the high 40s to the low 50s. Any chance of seeing palm trees adorn the field at Dodger Stadium would serve as a nice touch.

This is the also the first game after the Winter Classic, so the novelty of an outdoor setting will still have a uniqueness about it.

The Ducks and Kings are currently the top two teams in the Pacific Division, and their L.A.-based rivalry just might boil over at Chavez Ravine.

Pond hockey rating: 8

Red Wings vs. Maple Leafs, Jan. 1, Michigan Stadium
An Original Six matchup in a stadium filled with nostalgia is certain to produce an attendance record for an NHL game.

Unfortunately, HBO’s "24/7" isn’t creating much buildup as Detroit and Toronto continue to struggle heading into this game with no real compelling storylines developing between either team. Both teams desperately need their star players healthy for this game to have any entertainment value.

Still, it’s New Year’s Day with Doc Emrick calling the shots on NBC. Tough to beat.

Pond hockey rating: 6.5

Devils vs. Rangers, Jan. 26, Yankee Stadium
Outdoor hockey in The Big Apple for the first time.

The timing of this game is ideal as it won’t be swallowed up by the hype of an NFL Sunday. This game conveniently falls between the AFC/NFC Championship weekend and the Super Bowl at nearby MetLife Stadium the following week when sports fans are languishing for anything before the big game.

Although the Devils and Rangers have been mediocre in the first half of the season, the possibility of a Henrik Lundqvist-Martin Brodeur showdown could make this game one of the memorable ones on the schedule.

Pond hockey rating: 5.5

Senators vs. Canucks, March 2, BC Place
After watching the Penguins and Blackhawks the previous day, the Heritage Classic will feel like the Triple-A All-Star Game, which is typically played the day after Major League baseball’s Midsummer Classic.

Certainly, there will be excitement north of the border, but here in the U.S., the interest level will rank right up there with an Indians-Mariners doubleheader in a venue that holds no historical relevance.

However, the Canucks are still in the upper echelon of the Western Conference, which gives this game some credibility. Let’s hope the Senators can turn their season around in time to make this game an important one for both teams.

Pond hockey rating: 4

Islanders vs. Rangers, Jan. 29, Yankee Stadium
On a bad day (Wednesday), with a bad team (the Islanders are at the bottom of the woeful Metropolitan Division), in a venue where the novelty will have already worn off after watching the Devils and Rangers three days earlier.

By then, sports fans will be in all-out Super Bowl mode. Barring a four-goal effort from John Tavares or a 10-round shootout, I fear this game will be the real dud on the outdoor circuit.

Pond hockey rating: 2

Flyers returning from World Cup enjoyed playoff-like atmosphere

Flyers returning from World Cup enjoyed playoff-like atmosphere

VOORHEES, N.J. – It’s as if the season began right where it left off for the handful of Flyers players that participated in the World Cup of Hockey. 

Five months removed from their first round series with Washington, the group that played in the international tournament says it was nearly identical to the tempo they saw in the NHL playoffs.

“Our division was really tight so right from the get-go you couldn’t afford to lose a game,” said Sean Couturier, who suited up for North America. “It definitely felt like playoffs, and it definitely didn’t feel like September.”

Couturier was joined by his World Cup teammate Shayne Gostisbehere, along with Team Czech Republic’s Jake Voracek and Michael Neuvirth, in their return to Voorhees for their first practice with the Flyers on Monday. Team Canada’s Claude Giroux and the Team Europe duo of Mark Streit and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare will be competing in the finals this week.

While it may have been an early exit for the first wave of Flyers who reported back, the experience of playing in a tournament with that high of intensity has left them more confident than they’ve ever felt at this time of the year, particularly for Gostisbehere. 

The Calder Trophy runner-up underwent offseason hip surgery following his 46-point season. Having missed a season two years ago because of a torn ACL, Gostisbehere is thankful for how much the World Cup prepared him for his second year. He says he feels better now than he ever has in his career after picking up four assists in the tournament.

“You don’t play in those games in September normally so it was pretty cool to do,” Gostisbehere said. “I think the tournament was a good stepping stone for me and to branch off my injury and give yourself the confidence that you’re feeling good for the year.”

Like Couturier and Gostisbehere, Voracek said the World Cup gameplay mirrored that of the NHL postseason. 

“When I look at the season for the Flyers, it was the best thing that could have happened for me,” Voracek said. “The World Cup was high level… I’m six games in before training camp even starts.”

After what he calls a “good offseason” of training, Voracek saw this opportunity as almost a saving grace – a chance to regain form before embarking on his sixth season in Philadelphia. The winger had one goal and one assist in three games that “felt like I was playing in the playoffs.”

Had this tournament occurred in 2015, the mindset coming back may have been different. Dave Hakstol was coaching his first professional season and as evidenced by their record to start the year and the comments made throughout, things took a little longer than expected when it came to picking up the new coach’s system.

That process is behind the Flyers, and it makes missing the first weekend of camp and possibly the first week of preseason games an easier obstacle to overcome.

“It’s always better when you know the system and what Hak wants in you,” Voracek said. “It’s obviously going to get better and better.”

The best-of-three World Cup finals will begin on Tuesday with the third game (if needed) commencing on Saturday. If the teams go the full distance, the remaining three Flyers involved would likely not play their first preseason game until Oct. 6 if not Oct. 8, the final exhibition game. 

Pressure is on Flyers' fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde to fend off competition

Pressure is on Flyers' fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde to fend off competition

VOORHEES, N.J. — Even before Flyers training camp opened, Ron Hextall talked about a plenitude of internal competition for jobs.
 
It’s all over the ice, too.
 
Who starts in goal: Steve Mason or Michal Neuvirth, who came on strong at the end of last season? 
 
Does Ivan Provorov win a spot on the roster? And if he does, who gets sent packing?
 
Between Scott Laughton and Nick Cousins, who gets the lion's share of ice time? 
 
Can Travis Konecny or Roman Lyubimov force a veteran forward off the team?
 
Then there’s free-agent signee Boyd Gordon, a PK specialist who was second only to Claude Giroux in the league last season on winning defensive zone draws. More competition.
 
Well, one of the key battles in training camp for both roster space and minutes concerns how veteran fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde handles the competition from Lyubimov — the 24-year-old Russian who plays a heavy game and can handle special teams — and others.
 
VandeVelde saw a bit of an offensive drop-off last season with 14 points. Though just a point fewer than the year before, the bigger dip was going from nine goals to two.
 
With no real goal-scoring additions in the offseason, Hextall is expecting bigger outputs from returning players.
 
In VandeVelde’s case, two goals is something Lyubimov could easily match or exceed.
 
“You have to go out there and give it your all,” VandeVelde said. “Hopefully, work hard and kinda make an impression. There’s a lot of guys fighting for a fair amount of spots. It’s going to be interesting.
 
“I think I’ve felt pressure every year. Obviously, you want to make an impression and get noticed out there. Reassure [them] I can still do the job and add a few things to my offensive game.”
 
And his self-evaluation?
 
“I think I was solid,” he replied. “As a fourth line, we were very good at times. Individually, I can add a little more and chip in a little more.”
 
VandeVelde is not scheduled to play in either of Monday’s split-squad games in New Jersey or Brooklyn.
 
At stake here isn’t just his job on the fourth line but the penalty kill, as well. VandeVelde’s 2:17 shorthanded ice time per game was second only to linemate Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (2:35) among the forwards.
 
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound Lyubimov has played on the penalty kill in the KHL, and Gordon is a PK specialist. What was VandeVelde’s edge is now something up for grabs, especially given both Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol have vowed there will be improvement on the PK, which ranked 14th last season after being among the bottom 10 much of the year.
 
Hakstol has said he intends to tweak the PK with some structural changes. That sounds like personnel changes and Gordon could be a guy on the fourth unit and will certainly be in the mix on the penalty kill.
 
How to make the kill better remains at large.
 
“We have to start a little more aggressively,” VandeVelde said. “Kinda like we finished last couple games there against Washington (in the playoffs). We kinda got burnt there 6-1 (in Game 3). We switched styles a little too late.”
 
The Flyers gave up five power play goals in Game 3 to the Caps.
 
VandeVelde admits his penalty kill experience gives him a bit of an edge going into camp.
 
“If I can bring that extra edge and solidify a role, that is huge,” he said.
 
VandeVelde returned to his home in Moorhead, Minn., over the summer to focus on his skating, hoping to get a more explosive start on the ice that he could utilize better during the penalty kill.
 
One thing seems certain: VandeVelde says there’s a greater comfort level for returning players as to what to expect from Hakstol. Also, whereas last year’s camp was one of implementing systems, this year’s camp is one of expanding on them.
 
“Everyone knows what to expect,” VandeVelde said. “So do all three coaches. They are going to tweak some things, whether it's penalty kill or power play or other systems. We’ll learn that. That is what preseason is for. All the players know what to expect and are ready to go.”
 
VandeVelde said he’s already been informed what the team expects from him this season. The competition could push him in that direction.
 
“I know what they want,” he said. “Obviously, I can do more offensively and want to chip in a little more as a fourth line and as an individual. Maybe just work on that.”