Blackhawks’ outdoor-game experience could pay off in Minnesota

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MINNEAPOLIS — The Blackhawks are playing in their fourth outdoor game on Sunday at Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium. It’s their third straight year with an outdoor game, and they’re likely headed to St. Louis’ Busch Stadium for next year’s Winter Classic.

Meanwhile, 13 NHL teams haven’t gotten a single outdoor game yet. Well, the Hawks aren’t about to apologize.

“We kind of deserve it,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “We’ve had a couple of good years in a row, and we have a big fan base — not only in Chicago, but everywhere we go. We probably have the most fans on the road. It’s good for our fans for us to have these kinds of games, too, and give them a little treat.”

It’s also good for the Hawks, who enter Sunday’s game — a game that, underneath all the pomp and circumstance, actually counts for a heated Central Division race — with a decided tactical advantage on the Minnesota Wild, who are making their outdoor debut. The Hawks have played in ideal conditions at Wrigley Field in 2009 (well, four of the current Hawks did, at least). They’ve played in the bitter cold amid heavy snowfall at Soldier Field in 2014. And they played with a bright sun glare affecting their vision at Nationals Park last year. They’ve dealt with the odd optics of baseball stadiums, with the shoveling of snow delaying the game at nearly every stoppage, and with the switching of sides in the middle of the third period to share the glare. And, of course, they’re veterans of the big stage and the national spotlight.

The weather’s expected to be fine on Sunday — around 40 degrees and partly cloudy. But short of a rain delay, there isn’t anything Mother Nature can throw at them that they haven’t already dealt with.

“It’s fun,” Corey Crawford said of playing in so many outdoor games. “As long as it’s not minus-40 out there, the guys are fine with it, I guess.”

This will be Crawford’s third such game, and he’s picked up a few pro tips along the way. The hardest part is depth perception — players are so used to fans being right on the glass, especially behind the nets. But in the stadium games, the stands can be more than 100 feet away. And a little snow’s a good thing — Crawford said it was easier to pick up the puck during the Soldier Field game, because it stood out better among the snow and the stadium lights at night.

For fans — and for television purposes — adverse weather conditions make the game more interesting. But with two points on the line — “We’re playing for keeps,” Joel Quenneville reminded reporters three times — the players would rather not be impaired.

“I want to play hockey,” Hjalmarsson said. “That game in Soldier Field was a little too extreme. You couldn’t really make any plays. You just kind of had to just throw the puck away every single time you had it. I think it would be more fun for the crowd to see a good quality hockey game, and hopefully the weather allows us to perform and play a good game.”

Even with all the outdoor experience on the Hawks roster, there will be eight Hawks first-timers. And Saturday’s practice at TCF Stadium was a jaw-dropping experience.

“It’s crazy,” rookie Vinnie Hinostroza said. “These guys were just walking in here like it’s no big deal, because it’s their fourth time. I know they’re excited too, but they’re just used to it. The younger guys, like me, [Dennis Rasmussen], [Brandon Mashinter] and [Phillip Danault] and [Erik Gustafsson] are just kind of in awe right now. We went out there and took some pictures by the rink. We’re definitely excited. It’s something everyone would like to have a part in, and we’re pretty fortunate to do that.”

And even for the guys who’ve done all this before, it’s still a welcome break from the monotony of the regular season, an annual experience they’re happy to have.

“It’s not like it’s our 50th time playing in one of these, it’s our fourth time,” Patrick Kane said. “It’s still pretty unusual playing in a game like this. It’s exciting. All of us enjoy it. .. It seems like the NHL wants the Blackhawks in these types of events, so we try to put on a good show for everyone.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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