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Inexact science for maintaining ice at Yankee Stadium

Midway through the first period of the New York Rangers' 2-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, with the temperature hovering around 20 degrees and the wind chill in the single digits, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault was interviewed on the bench.

"The puck is bouncing," he said.

Vigneault didn't tell anyone anything they didn't already know, especially since New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur proclaimed after the first NHL Stadium Series game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon, "It was the worst ice I ever played hockey on."

Devils forward Patrik Elias dubbed the ice quality "questionable."

Even Vigneault, whose team won Sunday's game, was critical.

"You'd think that on a day where it's below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, that you're talking about ideal conditions," Vigneault said. "You should be able to get ice, and they had issues with the ice. I was surprised about that."

Most people would tend to think along the same lines as Vigneault. It's easy to make ice when it's cold out, especially when it's well below freezing, right? Sure. It's just not easy to make good ice.

In NHL arenas, ice technicians try to keep the ambient temperature around 63 degrees, the ice temperature between 24 and 26 degrees and the relative humidity at around 30 percent. Outside, those variables are obviously completely out of the technician's control. As the air temperature drops, so does the surface temperature of the ice. As the ice gets colder, it becomes harder and more brittle, which causes the ice to chip and more snow to build up upon it, both of which cause the puck to bounce.

With warmer temperatures, like they had in Sunday's game in the half of the ice being hit by the sun (Brodeur estimated the sunny end was 10 degrees warmer than the one in shadows), the opposite happens. The surface becomes soft, which causes the puck to stick and the game to become dramatically slower. Figure skaters like soft ice because it grabs at their skate blades when they land from jumps, preventing falls, but soft ice is also more easily gouged by skate blades, creating ruts.

Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot the NHL's ice crews strive for in indoor arenas, but have trouble replicating at outdoor venues. But you have to cut the Yankee Stadium ice crew some slack; remember, there's grass and dirt under the sheet of ice stretching across the Yankee Stadium infield from the first-base line to the third-base line, and while Yankee Stadium has played host to football games, boxing matches and rock concerts, it certainly wasn't designed for hockey.

And the so-called polar vortex that has enveloped the Northeast in recent weeks, along with many doses of unpredicted precipitation, made it even more difficult to manage ice conditions. With that in mind, the Yankee Stadium ice crew spent all day Monday and Tuesday working on the rink, and their diligence paid off.

"I thought the ice was much better tonight," said Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. "It was a lot cleaner, and there weren't as many pot holes as there were on Sunday."

Fellow defenseman Marc Staal agreed.

"It was way better," Staal said. "Against New Jersey, there were big holes and ruts they had to keep repairing, but tonight, I didn't see the ice guys out there at all. But it was just so cold, the puck was bouncing quite a bit and it was tough to control at times."

Just as baseball teams once had to adjust to the speed and hardness of AstroTurf, hockey teams must tailor their games to account for differences in the ice surface.

When the ice is very hard and dry, defensemen and players killing penalties are more careful, because the offense pressures them more in hopes of capitalizing on one of those bad bounces. Goalies don't play as many pucks behind the net, for fear of getting caught away from the goal should the puck hop over their stick. Forwards play a more simple game, eliminating unnecessary passes and fancy stickwork.

"I'm sure there are going to be elements during the course of the game we need to adjust to," said Islanders head coach Jack Capuano before Wednesday night's game. "Wind can play a factor, the ice, the snow, the amount of snow buildup. I think teams will pressure a little bit more, knowing there is some snow on the ice and knowing the puck is going to take some bounces. It all comes back to simplifying your game."

But for Capuano's Islanders on Wednesday night, things weren't so easy. The ice, hockey folks are fond of saying, is the same for both teams, but it was the Rangers who capitalized on the final scoring opportunity of the game, at the 4:36 mark of the third period.

"Our guys made their luck with the bounces," Vigneault said.

And with a logjam at the top of the Metropolitan Division heading into the Olympic break, the Rangers made away with two critical points. 

Lindsay Berra is a reporter for
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