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Outdoor rink taking shape as NHL prepares for Winter Classic @NHLdotcom

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) - The boards are going up, the ice is going down and everything is back on schedule for the NHL's outdoor game between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Delayed by wind and snow Sunday and Monday, the league is converting Ralph Wilson Stadium into a hockey rink for Tuesday's Winter Classic.

The Sabres and Penguins are to practice at the stadium Monday afternoon. If there is bad weather, the NHL has the option of postponing the game to Jan. 2.

The league began making ice and installing the boards Wednesday on a 35-degree afternoon with little wind and no rain.

"You couldn't ask for a better day," said Dan Craig, the league's ice guru, who is overseeing the rink construction. "It was letter perfect."

This was far different from when work began after the Buffalo Bills' game Sunday. Gusts peaking at 50 mph and wind chills in the low teens forced the league to cram more than 60 hours of work into the past two days.

"It made for a few challenges the first night, but we worked our way around it," Craig said. "We got our guys some extra rest on that first day, but pushed very hard the last 48 hours."

Crews were able to level off the field - which has a 6-inch crown where the rink is located - in about 10 hours Wednesday using plastic foam sheets covered by three-quarter-inch plywood and plastic enclosed in a boxlike structure. That led to the next step: putting the ice mats down before a thin layer of sand was dragged over the mats to help form a base for the ice surface.

The mats will be filled with water and Craig was optimistic there would be a fully enclosed hockey rink with at least a half-inch of ice by Thursday afternoon.

"If we get three or four more days like this, I can work through everything we're running with," he said.

The forecast shows favorable temperatures, but crews may be hindered by some scattered rain and snow showers that are predicted for the rest of the week. Craig, though, isn't too worried, especially since he can add manpower if need be.

"We're working around the clock," he said. "There's no backing out here."

A weather station has been installed halfway along the sidelines to give Craig up-to-the-minute information about temperatures, wind speed and direction, air pressure and dew points.

"We know every hour what's coming," Craig said. "That's the way you work it."

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