LAS VEGAS — There’s one small catch to playing a winter sport in the middle of the desert in late May.
While they took great pains to not come off like they were using bad ice as an excuse for their 6-4 Game 1 loss in a sunbaked city — “It was worse than I expected,” Nicklas Backstrom said, “but it’s the same for both teams so it doesn’t really matter” — the Washington Capitals didn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade.
“Yeah, it was pretty bad. What is it, 90 degrees out there?” Jay Beagle said. “Our rink, the ice hasn’t been that great either once it gets humid and hot. Ice conditions are the same for both teams. It’s not like their half is better than ours.”
Due to a Pink concert Saturday night, the Stanley Cup Final playing surface at T-Mobile Arena was not laid down until Sunday for Monday’s opener.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said the ice was a little firmer for Tuesday’s practice, but that was without 17,500 warm bodies, and Criss Angel working up a sweat cranking a siren, and a marching band pounding on electric drums that expel seizure-inducing flash lighting.
“I have no idea about what they have to do to get it perfectly. It doesn’t help that it’s 100 degrees out, and it doesn’t help that people are screaming their faces off,” said defenceman John Carlson, unconvinced that the ice had improved overnight.
“The only thing that would matter is if there’s holes in the ice or something. The puck’s gonna bounce; it’s gonna bounce sometimes on good ice, too. You just try not to dig your foot into the ice too far.”
During several stoppages in Game 1, the rink’s ice crew waded onto the canvas to fill ruts and repair soft spots.
In a city where the recommended SPF is 380 and Trotz feels compelled to remind the pit-stained media hordes to “stay hydrated” daily, the ice masters are faced with a Sisyphean task.
Due to the Capitals and Golden Knights’ stylistic differences, however, poor ice may slightly favour a home side that kills opponents with a wicked transition game.
“You can’t get too fancy with this ice because it’s a little bouncy — and they know that,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “They feed on it for turnovers.”
It would be unreasonable to expect February ice conditions as we race toward June. Science! So the Capitals, a group loaded with danglers and fine playmakers like Evgeny Kuznetsov, need to simplify.
“It’s just part of the way you have to play. You have to adjust your game. You have to realize what you can do and what you can’t do,” Trotz said.
“There were times early I thought we didn’t buy into that and other times I thought we bought into it, and we had success when we bought in.”
Just as loose officiating (see: David Perron, Ryan Reaves, Tom Wilson) and the Medieval Times show and all that noise contributed to the bedlam of Game 1, the sloppy ice chipped in, too. It’s partly why both coaches have gone to great lengths to give their excellent goaltenders a pass on a 10-goal tilt.
“The pucks were bouncing pretty good last night,” Trotz said. “Unfortunately, the ice wasn’t great. Usually, that first game on real fresh ice, and the building was warm, and all the stuff, the pucks were bouncing a little bit. And, to me, [Holtby’s five goals allowed] was more of that. There was a lot of chaos because the pucks were bouncing around.
“I don’t know if it was the empty building or just like everything it needs to cure a bit, but I thought [the ice] was really good today. So, hopefully that will help both teams.”
Game 2 is set for a sunny Wednesday when temperatures are forecast to hit 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Full Gretzky.
Beagle breaks down the Capitals’ approach if gets mushy.
“It’s keeping it simple. Getting the puck north. If that puck does bobble on you in the neutral zone and they transition, you don’t want it to come to chance. So it comes down to managing the puck,” said Beagle.
The fourth-line centre can joke about how the playing conditions present a greater challenge for him than the top-six stars.
“I have terrible hands, and they have great hands,” he chuckled. “So what does that make my hands when the ice goes bad?”
Ever-focused on the big prize, captain Alex Ovechkin is more succinct when discussing the issue.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ovechkin, a man who can take a puck in the face and not flinch.
“Ice. Sticks. Skates. It can’t be a problem.”