The first time Duncan Keith played in one of these outdoor games, he was flat-out nervous. Not because of the attention the game received. Not because of the chilly temperatures. Not because of the world-record crowd of 113,411. Not even because of the four pillars of fire that shot up from each corner of the rink.
No, the nervousness was for a far simpler reason than that.
“That was my first college game,” Keith said of the “Cold War” at Spartan Stadium in 2001.
Keith’s Michigan State squad tied rival Michigan 3-3 in the game, and the experience stuck with him. Now heading into his third outdoor game Saturday night at Soldier Field against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the novelty hasn’t faded.
“It’s pretty cool every time,” he said. “It’s an experience.”
If the 2001 game had the record crowd, and the 2009 Winter Classic had the allure and the wind of Wrigley Field, the Soldier Field Stadium Series game might be special for a different reason — a wind chill in the single digits and a 70 percent chance of snow.
While the NHL and NBC are certainly hoping for snow — what’s the point of an outdoor game in Chicago in the winter if it doesn’t snow? — the Blackhawks won’t be rooting for it.
“No, no, not for me,” Patrick Sharp said. “I want it nice and warm. I want it to be good ice, and as normal as possible.”
In other words, the Hawks would prefer a night just like Friday night. It was in the 20s with little wind during their 7 p.m. practice session. Both the Hawks and the Penguins (who practiced in the afternoon) raved about the quality of the ice.
“I thought it was great, as good as it could be, being outdoors,” Keith said. “Really good. Hopefully the weather stays nice.”
As the Red Wings and Maple Leafs learned during their frigid, snowy Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium on Jan. 1, a snowy surface makes crisp passing nearly impossible. It also slows the pace of the game down significantly. So two of the most skilled teams in the league might have to ugly it up a bit to score any goals.
Winds of up to 15 mph won’t help, either.
“We’re next to Lake Michigan, so who knows?” Jonathan Toews said. “We’ve got to be ready for anything. That’s part of the game.”
Beyond the chance of snow, there are plenty of intriguing story lines entering the game. Corey Crawford’s specially designed Stadium Series mask was apparently stolen, and Crawford has no idea where it is. Because of injuries, this is Sidney Crosby’s first game in Chicago since Jan. 13, 2005, his rookie season. He has never played against Toews. And just a week ago, Keith, Sharp and Toews were teammates with Crosby and Chris Kunitz, winning a gold medal with Team Canada at the Olympics.
Then there’s the simple fact that these are two of the best teams in hockey, so any meeting — indoors or out — is a big deal.
“Obviously, it’s a big game,” Keith said. “There’s a lot of attention, a lot of talk about the stadium and rightfully so, being outdoors and stuff. But we’ve got a job to do. That’s a good team with a lot of skill. They went far last year in the playoffs for a reason. It’s going to be a tough game.”
And a memorable one — come rain, snow, sleet, or gloom of night.
OK, probably not rain. Way too cold for that.
“Who knows what the weather’s going to be like?” Sharp said. “It’s going to be the same for both teams. You’ve just got to adjust to however you feel out there. Understand it’s not going to be perfect, but enjoy the experience and play the best you can.”
Stadium series: Vs. Penguins at Soldier Field • 7 p.m. Saturday • TV/RADIO: CH. 5/720-am
GAME-TIME FORECAST: NEAR 20 Degrees, 15 mph northerly wind, snow LIKELY