Wild, Blues stress Winter Classic more than just another game this season

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MINNEAPOLIS — They hooted and hollered and yelped, smacked pucks all around the ice, skated through the snow, raised their arms to celebrate goals and smiled the entire time under foggy visors and a slowly darkening sky.

The Minnesota Wild were the first on the ice for practice at Target Field on Friday in advance of the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE).

Everything Wild coach Dean Evason has been talking about rang true.

“Maybe there are some coaches that say it’s just another game; it’s not just another game,” Evason said. “This is not another game. It’s different but we still have to play the same. We still have to play how the Minnesota Wild play. But use that excitement to generate energy. Use that excitement to have fun.”

The Wild and Blues will play under the lights at the home ballpark of the Minnesota Twins, a dark, frigid Minneapolis night lit up for the NHL’s main event in the regular season with 38,000-plus in the stands and a national television audience watching from home. St. Louis (18-9-5) leads the Wild (19-9-2) by one point for first place in the Central Division.

It’s going to be a celebration of hockey in the “State of Hockey,” from the frozen lakes and ponds to the outdoor rinks you find in almost every neighborhood and small town. It will look and feel like Minnesota, including the expected below zero game-time temperature.

This Winter Classic could be the coldest outdoor game played in NHL history, potentially colder than the Heritage Classic between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Nov. 22, 2003, when it was zero degrees at face-off.

“The cold weather is awesome,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “Just to have an outdoor game in this kind of weather is going to be special, it really is. I know it’s cold, but it’s just something different. But I think once you drop that puck it’s all going to go away and you go play.”

The Winter Classic will be the NHL’s first major regular-season event with fans since the COVID-19 pandemic began nearly 22 months ago. The NHL staged two outdoor games last season without fans on a rink on a golf course along the shores of Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nevada.

The NHL’s last major regular-season event with fans was the 2020 Stadium Series game at Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Feb. 15, 2020.

“It’s the excitement of getting an event this size, this magnitude back in the league,” Wild forward Marcus Foligno said. “It was great to see fans from Day 1 this season, but this type of venue will be extra special. We’re just excited to be a part of it.”

The Wild and Blues players and coaches are no different than so many others who have been a part of the NHL’s previous 12 Winter Classic games and 32 total outdoor games; the environment always gives those involved a chance to romanticize the game and their own childhoods.

“We had a rink right by our elementary school and every day after school everybody met up there, you throw your sticks in the middle, choose sides and the game was on,” Blues defenseman Colton Parayko said.

Evason said he caught himself just staring up at the sky during practice and marveling to himself about the atmosphere.

“Just the walk as you walk toward the rink you get that cold feeling and you start feeling the air, the way you breathe out there, it’s great,” Blues forward David Perron said. “It’s a cool thing we have to play in this game.”

But when they remove their gaze from the scenery, taking their eyes off the fake deer pretending to prance in right field and the pond hockey games that will be going on behind them in center field backed by the warming lodge, the Blues and Wild will see the other half of the event that matters equally, if not more.

First place is on the line in the Winter Classic, the first meeting of the season between the division rivals.

“With the standings, it makes it a little more enhanced and exciting,” Blues goalie Jordan Binnington said. “These two points are big and we’re both aware of that team-wise.”

It’ll be 12 days since the Wild last played, a 7-4 loss to the Dallas Stars on Dec. 20. They haven’t won since Dec. 9, with four losses (0-3-1) and four postponements since.

“We haven’t played a lot of games recently and we’re on a little losing streak,” Wild forward Nick Bjugstad said. “We’d like to end that here and get a big win in front of our home fans. It’d be really cool. Everyone is excited. You can’t hide that excitement.”

The Blues want to pick up from where they left off Wednesday, when they defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 in St. Louis in their first game in 10 days.

“We needed [the players] today in practice just to focus for a half-hour there and get on the ice and feel it and go through a couple things, and I thought they did a great job,” Berube said. “And we need them tomorrow night at game time. 

“You’ve got to enjoy your families. It’s important. They’re here. It’s important to enjoy the family and enjoy the whole thing. It’s a big deal. When the puck drops, it’s business.”

It’s the main event.

“It’s not like any other game,” Wild defenseman Matt Dumba said.

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