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Sharks enjoy Stadium Series practice, ready for Kings

by Eric Gilmore

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As San Jose Sharks forward Tommy Wingels came out of the south tunnel Friday afternoon at massive Levi's Stadium and walked toward the rink for practice, he was hit by a wave of emotion.

"Just kind of some shock and awe of how cool this experience is going to be," Wingels said. "We've all watched and hoped to play in one of these games, and I think from the moment we were announced to host a game, we've had a lot of thoughts and countdowns to tomorrow. So to go out there today and get all the jitters out, to really enjoy the experience with our friends and family, it's really cool. It's something I'll remember for my whole life."

The Sharks soaked up the atmosphere at Levi's Stadium on the eve of their game Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings in the 2015 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports 2). During a high-energy practice, they prepared to play their most bitter rival but also familiarized themselves with the surroundings at the 69,000-seat stadium and with the rink, which was built for the outdoor game.

"You see it's big. It's really big out there," Sharks center Joe Pavelski said of the San Francisco 49ers' new home. "And then you've got the ice surface. It's awesome. It really is. You're excited to get out and skate around, get used to it.

"It was awesome practicing out there. It was light, it was fun. You find the energy's there just by being out there and the excitement and everyone running around. It was a cool buzz, and it will be fun to play tomorrow."

The Sharks began practice at 3:30 p.m. PT on a warm day with the sun still hitting part of the rink before it dropped behind the west side of the stadium.

With a 7 p.m. local start Saturday, the temperature will be cooler and the sun will be fully set, allowing the ice to be in the best possible condition.

Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan said he had no complaints, especially after playing an outdoor game three seasons ago with the Washington Capitals against the Pittsburgh Penguins on a drizzly night at Heinz Field.

"It was colder but it rained," Hannan said. "So the conditions were different. You just have to be expecting a bad bounce, the puck to bounce a little bit more, maybe to stick. You got to expect kind of the unexpected out there, maybe the tough bounce or something that can make or break it in the game."

Forward Logan Couture said he's been watching the NHL's outdoor games for years.

"Ever since I came in this league, we always wanted to play in a game like this," he said. "To get the opportunity is pretty cool, especially a home game in a brand new football stadium, which is beautiful. Seventy-thousand people, hopefully. It's going to be wicked."

Couture is the Sharks' poster boy for the game; there is a huge picture of him on an outer wall of the stadium, as well on the side of the truck that brought the NHL's refrigeration unit from Toronto.

"It's cool," Couture said. "I actually saw it first on Twitter. I had no idea that was going to happen, but pretty cool. Kind of a surreal thing."

Sharks forward Matt Nieto said he played some outdoor games in minor hockey in Quebec, but never at a venue like Levi's Stadium.

"Just looking up in the stands, there's a lot of seats," Nieto said. "It will be pretty crazy. Definitely the biggest attendance a lot of us have played in front of. It's just going to be a great experience."

The Sharks had lost two straight games and had fallen out of playoff position before defeating the Dallas Stars 5-2 on Thursday. Ending their skid and jumping the Kings for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference made it easier to enjoy the practice and family skate that followed Friday.

"When we woke up we felt a little better about ourselves and we could enjoy the day without a loss on our minds," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "Right now, that's important for us."

Long before practice began, McLellan hiked to the top row at Levi's Stadium and took in the entire scene, from the rink far below to the San Francisco Bay in the distance.

"It was remarkable," McLellan said.

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