HAMILTON - Dallas Eakins and the Toronto Marlies couldn't have asked for better.
The team practised Friday outdoors at Ivor Wynne Stadium in relatively comfortable -4 C temperatures in sunshine and under clear, blue skies. But that was of little consequence for Eakins, as his team put the finishing touches to its preparations to meet the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL's Outdoor Classic.
"This game is going to leave a real sour taste in my mouth if we don't come away with the two points," Eakins said matter of factly following Friday's skate.
With Toronto having five days off, Eakins opted to put his team through two outdoor practices while Hamilton coach Clem Jodoin kept the Bulldogs indoors Thursday before having them take part in a light skate Friday.
"Pretty intense practices (Thursday and Friday)," said Toronto centre Mike Zigomanis. "Obviously it's a lot of fun being out here but at the same time we want to win. It's a divisional game, so it's a pretty big one for us."
Added Eakins: "I don't think it's going to hurt us, that's for sure. I don't know if it's a benefit and I think the Bulldogs would have done the same but we've had the whole week off."
While the Marlies focused on the importance of the win Friday, the Bulldogs seemed to relish basking in the sunshine and taking in the overall atmosphere.
"The experience itself is going to be unbelievable," said Hamilton's Ian Schultz, one of a few Bulldogs who brought a few friends on the ice after practice.
Jodoin wanted his team to enjoy it all, opting to stay away from Ivor Wynne during Thursday's snowstorm.
"I said to the boys, 'Let's enjoy it. It's a special event that will happen once in your life,'" he said.
The game is important to Hamilton, which is six points behind Toronto in the standings with two games in hand. The Bulldogs have also earned three straight wins against Toronto, including a 2-1 decision Sunday at Copps Coliseum.
"We don't like them and they don't like us, that's pretty well documented," said Toronto prospect Joe Colborne. "I don't expect too much different from this game its going to be very physical."
But players on both teams admit it might take them a little time to get used to playing hockey in a football stadium.
"If you look at the Winter Classics and the Heritage Classics, you see the teams start to feel it out in the first two shifts," Colborne said. "It takes a while to get the spectacle out of the way and get into a hockey game."
The weather, though, shouldn't be a problem. The forecast Sunday is calling for sunny skies with a high of -4 C.
But Toronto goalie Ben Scrivens said the wind creates the most some unpredictability.
"The pucks starts drifting on (players), sometimes they don't know quite where it's going and sometimes that makes it even more difficult to read where they want to put it," Scrivens said.
Scrivens has started every game against the Bulldogs, going 1-3-0 with a .896 save percentage and a 3.00 goal-against average.
Hamilton goalie Nathan Lawson will make his first start since Jan. 6 against the Syracuse Crunch. He left that game with a concussion and has missed six straight contests.
Lawson has struggled against Toronto. He has started two of Hamilton's four games against the Marlies, losing one and being pulled from the other after giving up three goals on five shots.
Up front, the Bulldogs will rely on Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist, who've combined for 21 points and a plus-13 rating over the first seven games of 2012.
As for the Marlies, scoring leader Zigomanis said the team's special teams will be key against Hamilton. Toronto's power-play has struggled of late, scoring at just a 15.4 per cent clip and was the focus of Friday's practice.
Toronto also faces a Hamilton club that's posted a 12-4-3 record since December and clawed its way out of the AHL basement.
Still, Jodoin was encouraging his players to enjoy the moment Friday with the expectation to get their pre-game focus set sometime Saturday morning. Eakins, however, was more direct when addressing his players at Toronto's practice.
"They know what the points are about,'' he said. "These guys are pros and the message I had for them at them at the end of the rink is ever since I picked up a hockey stick whether I played in my basement, on the outdoor rink or in the driveway the game has never been fun unless I won.
"And it's the same for these guys, they're wired to win."