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Outdoor ice a return to childhood for Islanders

by Brian Compton

NEW YORK -- As a child, New York Islanders captain John Tavares spent the majority of his free time skating on the backyard rink of Sam Gagner, a neighborhood friend who has gone on to play for the Edmonton Oilers. Those memories came flooding back Tuesday.

Tavares' trip down memory lane was triggered when he and his teammates found themselves at Yankee Stadium, preparing for their 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series showdown with the New York Rangers on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC).

"We used to spend six, seven hours out there," Tavares said of his childhood days of skating with Gagner. "I remember not being able to feel my fingers or toes for a few hours. That was a lot of fun.

"Ramsey Lake, up in Sudbury, Ontario, where my family's from, being a little kid my dad used to bring me out there. Minor hockey too, before I played with Sam, we used to play once a week outside on just a local outdoor rink. It wasn't so much practice, we would just go out there and play shinny and have fun and just enjoy playing the game. We played a lot outside, and I'm looking forward to create some more memories [Wednesday]."

The Islanders went through a spirited practice, lasting lasted nearly an hour. before they were joined on the ice by their families. Tavares, 23, admitted it didn't take very long to feel like a child again, transported back to that magical time when he spent those countless hours on Gagner's rink.

"Just feeling the air and moving the puck out there and hearing all the sounds and the way the ice is, a lot of it is what I remember and it feels very similar. I really enjoyed it," Tavares said. "I wished we had practiced a little longer, to be honest with you. You want to really enjoy it and take it all in and take advantage of this moment."

Tavares' linemate, Thomas Vanek, is the only player on the Isles' roster who has skated in an NHL outdoor game; he played in the 2008 Winter Classic as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. With so many players experiencing such an event for the first time, the element of distraction was there for some.

But the Islanders are winless in their past three games (0-2-1) and are desperate for points in a push for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The hope is that desperation will supersede any chance of losing focus against the Rangers in front of a capacity crowd at Yankee Stadium.

The Rangers have won seven of their past 10 games to take second place in the Metropolitan Division. Their rivals from the other side of the East River know they have their hands full.

"Any point, any win is crucial for us right now," said Tavares, who ranks second in the League with 64 points (23 goals, 41 assists). "We've played a lot of hockey this month. It's been every other day and a little bit of a blur at times. You're just making sure you're taking it one game at a time and focus for each and every one. [Wednesday], it's obviously different surroundings and you want to enjoy that part of it, but tomorrow's a big game for us and we need to come away with a better effort and, hopefully, we get the points that we need."

"Once the puck drops, it's another game and it's two points we've got to get," added right wing Kyle Okposo, arguably the Isles' best player during the past month. "Definitely warmups will be fun, looking around, skating around … we're going to enjoy the moment. [But] we need every point we can get, and this [game] is no different. We've dropped our last three games, so that obviously doesn't help. This is a big game for us."

There is a strong chance goaltender Evgeni Nabokov will make his first start since sustaining a lower-body injury on Jan. 6. Nabokov was back in uniform for a 6-3 loss Monday to the Boston Bruins at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and relieved Kevin Poulin with 11:48 left in the third period. Nabokov told reporters Tuesday that he will be ready if called upon and looks forward to playing in what is expected to be a phenomenal atmosphere.

"I was a little surprised how cool it was," Nabokov said. "I really didn't know what to expect, to be honest with you. The ice wasn't bad at all. I thought the atmosphere was great. You can feel that great atmosphere out there. As long as the wind is not there, I will be fine."

What if the wind is there?

"Then I will be cold," Nabokov said.

The players aren't the only ones who are excited to participate in such an event. Islanders coach Jack Capuano admitted he's thought about this game a lot since the 2013-14 schedule was released.

"I feel extremely fortunate," Capuano said. "I talked to [Boston Bruins coach] Claude Julien [on Monday]. He's coached in two of them, in Edmonton [as Montreal Canadiens coach at the 2003 Heritage Classic] and in Fenway [Park]. We all knew and circled it on the calendar at the start of the year. But you have to focus on the task at hand. But it's here before you know it.

"You get into this building, you're in the Bronx, you're in Yankee Stadium, a great venue, and it's pretty amazing what the NHL has done with these events. I think when we get out there [Wednesday] night it will be all business. But [Tuesday] was a day for our guys to enjoy a good, spirited practice, lot of time with their families. It's not every day you get to do that."


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