Bad ice quality at CONSOL Energy Center hurting Penguins

Following Sunday afternoon’s exciting 4-3 win at Buffalo, Sidney Crosby had an interesting response when a member of the media asked him why he’s done so well against the Sabres, especially in western New York.

As the Penguins captain told the Associated Press:

“For whatever reason, I’ve always been able to put some points up here. It’s great ice here. That’s all I can say.”

For all his on-ice prowess, Crosby has never been a very compelling media presence. In the typical hockey-player way, he delivers innocuous quotes without ever putting himself ahead of the team or the sport. This time, though, the eighth-year pro made a rare interesting point.

Feb. 17, 2013; Buffalo, NY, USA; Linesman Derek Nansen (70) drops the puck for a face off against Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) and Buffalo Sabres center Jochen Hecht (55) during the second period at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

In praising the high quality of the ice at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center, Crosby reminded us how important a smooth sheet is to talented offensive players like himself, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang. Any fourth-line plugger can play the chip-and-chase game in glorified slush, but an artist needs a pure canvas.

As much as I hate painting with a broad brush (pun intended), the Penguins have played much cleaner hockey on the road than at home. Their 8-2-0 record away from CONSOL Energy Center speaks volumes, but simple observation reveals that Pittsburgh’s passing, shooting and skating have been undeniably crisper when wearing white jerseys.

Some of that disparity could be explained by the team being stimulated by the challenge of playing in a hostile building, but I think it’s more than that. As multiple Pittsburgh media members have noted, the CONSOL Energy Center ice has been noticeably choppy both this season and in its first two years of hosting Penguins hockey.

Take a look at this highlight of Pascal Dupuis’ goal on Feb. 7 in a 5-2 win over Washington:

For the video-impaired, Dupuis has a soft 10-foot pass from Crosby jump over his blade and bounce crazily on the ice. Luckily for the Penguins, Dupuis’ desperate swipe at the puck produced an ugly goal that rattled into the net off goalie Michal Neuvirth.

That incident is one of many bad hops that pucks have taken in Penguins home games, and those are just ones that are detectable while watching on television. Yes, the bad ice affects both teams, but the Pens are designed to win via speed and skill, from coach Dan Bylsma’s up-tempo approach to the personnel on the payroll.

I’m sure the Penguins are concerned about the poor ice quality on their home rink, although probably not as much as they are about the team’s 3-3-0 record in Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, NHL ice production guru Dan Craig, who has been in charge of creating optimal conditions for every Winter Classic and countless other significant games, was sighted at CONSOL Energy Center last week.

Presumably, the Penguins called upon Craig to try to get a handle on why their three-year-old facility has never been able to produce ice sheets like often seen in Buffalo, Detroit and the Canadian NHL cities. Pittsburgh has been just as cold as anywhere in North America in recent weeks, so the weather isn’t an excuse.

No matter how the Penguins go about fixing their ice problem, it’s imperative that it gets taken care of before the Stanley Cup playoffs. While it’s nice that Crosby and his teammates can thrive in other cities, they’re called the comforts of home for a reason.