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First NHL outdoor game

by Dana Wakiji / Detroit Red Wings
Brad Richards will be the quarterback on a line with speedy receivers in Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

GROSSE POINTE, Mich. -- For rookies Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou, Saturday's Stadium Series game at Denver's Coors Field will be a first.

Both players will be playing in their first outdoor NHL game.

"I’m really excited," Larkin said. "I was just talking to Double-A. I played in one last year with Michigan, but it was in Chicago and there wasn’t much of a crowd. I think it’s going to be awesome to look out and see all the fans. I don’t know how many the stadium holds, got to be close to 30 or 40,000. It’s going to be pretty special."

Larkin played for Michigan against Michigan State in last year's Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears.

Although Larkin did not record a point in that game, he did have a game-high eight shots on goal.

Like most Canadian kids growing up, Athanasiou has played outdoor hockey games, just not with a big crowd watching.

"You always go on the outdoor rinks or ponds and get a group of buddies and throw your sticks in the middle and set up the team," Athanasiou said. "It’ll bring back memories."

Athanasiou has watched some of the outdoor games on TV and wondered what it would be like to play in one.

"I think it’s so exciting," Athanasiou said. "You see the atmosphere there, you don’t get that every day, so it’s something you have to appreciate."

Larkin was at the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium when the Wings played the Toronto Maple Leafs but he attended as a fan.

"It was a cold day," Larkin recalled. "It was pretty cool though, a lot of people in one area watching a hockey game. Great venue, one of the best stadiums, that was pretty special too."

Although the game is set for 6 p.m. PST, the weather forecast is calling for sunny skies and 72-degree temperatures during the day.

Those aren't ideal conditions for outdoor hockey.

"You want to the ice to be good," Larkin said. "You want it to be as normal as it can. Sometimes it can be better. I watched the Minnesota and Chicago game and the ice looked pretty awesome, it was probably pretty chilly there. There wasn’t too much snow. With it being warm you don’t want it to be slow, you dig in pretty hard (for it) to be wet. They’ve been doing it for a little while, they did a game in California last year. I think the crew on it will do a good job."

Fans should hope for good ice as Wings coach Jeff Blashill had Larkin and Athanasiou skating on a line with Brad Richards during Wednesday's practice at Grosse Pointe's University Liggett.

"We wanted to look at it in practice," Blashill said. "The one thing that Richards gives that line is a proven face-off guy. The other two guys, if there's a negative to them playing center at all, it's that they haven't proved themselves in the circle. Double-A in the American League was about 49 percent. That usually equates to about 44 percent up here. If that's the case, I couldn't put him out in the D zone or the O zone. Richards gives them a chance to win a face-off and then I think the line combination, it's lots of speed and dynamics and a real smart guy who's got over 1300 points in the NHL. So I think it could be a real good line."

Larkin and Athanasiou, along with Darren Helm, are the fastest skaters on the team.

"I just try to keep up," Larkin said. "Even today he was flying around. It’s exciting. I love it. It opens up a lot of room. A lot of opportunity to maybe … I don’t think it’s cheating because of our speed, to blow by defensemen and create odd-man rushes. We can really use our speed together and hockey sense and then you have a guy like Brad Richards who knows the game and is responsible defensively, I told him he’s like a quarterback with us two wide receivers flying around in the zone."

Larkin said Athanasiou assisted on his first professional goal when they played for the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins late last season.

Athanasiou likes the potential of his new line.

"(Larkin) has a tremendous skill set and that speed, too," Athanasiou said. "We can be dynamic out there and Richie is a veteran, he’s so smart. It’s going to be a lot of fun playing with those two players."

LINE COMBINATIONS: Blashill is still seeking line combinations that will produce the most offense without losing anything defensively.

Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg skated with Justin Abdelkader in practice.

Blashill also reunited the old line of Riley Sheahan with Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.

"We went and looked at a lot of things statistically and when they've played together they did a good job of creating a real good differential in chances for compare to chances against," Blashill said. "Not the goal the differentiation but we determined that was kind of a little bit of bad luck and that over a longer period of time if they kept getting those chances, that they would equate to a better goal differentiation. The only thing is it was against lesser competition and that's something that has to be factored into it. I thought Nyquist had good jump, I thought Sheahan had good jump. They've been a good line together, let's see if they can be a good line together again."

Helm missed Wednesday's practice due to illness so Luke Glendening centered a line with Tomas Jurco and Teemu Pulkkinen.

PREPARING FOR STADIUM SERIES: The Wings do not practice Thursday so their only real practice before the Stadium Series game was Wednesday.

Of course, when it comes to playing outdoors, there are some things that can't be practiced.

"It's different in a sense that I don't want to say can go wrong, but there's more things that can happen that are out of your control, so you have to go into the game just being OK with things going awry around you and keeping your focus and continuing to play," Blashill said. "I think you have to enjoy the moment, you have to enjoy the whole atmosphere. I'm a big believer in that in life period.

"But while you're focusing on playing, you've got to remember the ice conditions might not be great, the visibility might not be great. Lots of factors can happen. You've just got to keep playing and both teams are going to see the same thing. I always say it's like your wedding day. If you think it's going to go perfect, you're going to be sorely mistaken. Things are going to go wrong and you've still got to enjoy the whole thing."

Blashill said he's not concerned about the altitude affecting his players.

"For a 60-minute game I don't believe so," Blahill said. "There's nothing we can do about it anyways. We'll be out there early enough that I think you can get adjusted enough. I don't think it's a factor."

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