National Hockey League's Dan Craig, left, and Minnesota Wild's Travis Larson, right, help on transforming TCF Bank Stadium into a world-class hockey venue, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016 in Minneapolis, for the upcoming 2016 NHL Stadium Series that will be taking
AP Photo
February 20, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Finally, after years of lobbying to host an outdoor game, the Minnesota Wild will take their skates and sticks to the ice under the winter sky.

Fittingly, they will face the Chicago Blackhawks, the division rival that has eliminated them from the playoffs in each of the last three years and one of the NHL's premier teams that has already participated in three of these au naturel games.

Fortunately for the Wild, they're playing well enough a week after the firing of head coach Mike Yeo that they haven't spoiled the party.

This will be the 17th time the league has staged an outdoor game, including eight editions of the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, but the players who haven't done this yet will surely find themselves thinking back to those childhood skating sessions at the local park or on the frozen pond for at least a few seconds.

''It's important to really live in the moment and soak in different situations that you get a chance that you get to be a part of. This is one of them,'' Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk said. ''Who knows when you get a chance to be in a situation like this or a game like this again? You don't want to zone out so much that you wake up a week from now and you don't remember any of it.''

That goes for the other guys, too.

''There's no doubt your fourth one is not exactly a novelty like it was at first, but still exciting,'' Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. ''It looks like we're going to get some decent weather, knock on wood.''

The forecasts for Sunday are calling for a high temperature of 35 degrees and a dry, partly sunny day.

Given the severe slump that prompted the change on the bench and pushed the Wild below the cut for the Western Conference wild-card spots, beating the Blackhawks would mean a lot more than experiencing the nostalgic charm of an outdoor game.

''We'd like to come out with two points, that's for sure,'' said interim coach John Torchetti, the former Blackhawks assistant who was on staff in 2010 for the first of three Stanley Cup titles the team has won in the last six years.

Torchetti is 3-0 since taking over. The Wild scored five goals in each game, the first time in franchise history they've had such a streak.

So there'll be some urgency surrounding the Wild when they take the ice for the Stadium Series event at TCF Bank Stadium, where the University of Minnesota plays football, but there'll be amusement and appreciation as well. This is Minnesota, after all, the state that produced 36 players on NHL rosters this season and ranks first in the nation in terms of participation according to USA Hockey.

''When you get to be part of these Stadium Series games, I think the NHL has a little faith in your team to put on a good show,'' Blackhawks star Patrick Kane said. ''And obviously in Minnesota here, we know hockey's pretty popular, too, so I'm sure it will be an exciting game.''

After the two teams tuned up with a light practice on Saturday, with satisfactory reviews of the ice condition all around, the alumni game came next with a handful of ex-Wild players joining former Minnesota North Stars standouts in a friendly grudge match against Blackhawks greats.

There were many other facets of the weekend-long celebration of the sport, from the fan festival at the stadium, autograph sessions, live music and even a special lighting of the nearby Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in the Wild's red and green colors.

So the expected capacity crowd of 50,000 people will have plenty to entertain themselves with. Once the puck drops, though, the atmosphere turns serious.

''At the end of the day, at this time of the season especially, we know how important a game it is,'' Wild forward Zach Parise said. ''It's a team that's playing really well and a team that you know you have to go through. We have to make sure that we're ready and try and limit the distractions.''

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