John Hickey, Associated Press
Preparations continue for the Winter Classic outdoor hockey game between Buffalo and Pittsburgh. The game is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 1. Bad weather could push the game back a day.

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 in Orchard Park, N.Y.

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."

CAPITALS GIVE BOUDREAU JOB: Bruce Boudreau became the Washington Capitals' coach Wednesday when the team dropped the "interim" tag from his title.

The Capitals were 7-5-3 under Boudreau entering Wednesday night's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Boudreau was promoted from the club's American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, on Thanksgiving Day, replacing the fired Glen Hanlon. At that point, the Capitals were last in the NHL with a 6-14-1 record, their worst 21-game start to a season since 1981-82.

RED WINGS, LIDSTROM AGREE: Nicklas Lidstrom and the Detroit Red Wings agreed to a two-year contract extension Wednesday that runs through the 2009-10 season.

The deal is worth about $15 million.

Winner of five Norris Trophies, the 37-year-old Swede is the highest-scoring defenseman in Red Wings history with 900 points in 15 seasons. He was picked by Detroit in the third round of the 1989 draft.

TOSKALA SITS OUT; DIPIETRO INJURED: Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala sat out against the Islanders on Wednesday night because of tightness in his groin, and New York counterpart Rick DiPietro left the game due to a knee injury.

Toskala practiced with his teammates Wednesday morning, shortly after the team's post-Christmas flight to New York, but was the first Toronto player off the ice. He isn't expected to play Thursday at Philadelphia, either, when the Maple Leafs complete a club-record tying seven-game road trip.

DiPietro made the start for New York but lasted only one period. He didn't come out of the dressing room after the first intermission because of an undisclosed knee injury. The Islanders said the franchise goalie wouldn't return and would be re-evaluated on Thursday.

DiPietro allowed two goals on nine shots in his brief action and left with the Islanders leading 3-2.

Wade Dubielewicz, who gave up eight goals on 42 shots in New York's 8-1 loss at Toronto on Oct. 11, came on in relief.

Toskala had played in 16 straight games, including 12 consecutive starts after Toronto was outscored 8-2 in back-to-back consecutive road losses to Dallas and Phoenix on Nov. 23-24.