The Winter Classic is easily the most eagerly anticipated regular-season game on the Flyers' schedule.

For several reasons.

For one, the national buildup and accompanying HBO series, 24/7, have given the matchup - the Flyers face the rival New York Rangers on Jan. 2 at Ryan Howard's favorite ballpark - a Super Bowl-like feel.

For another, playing outdoors takes the players back to the innocence of their youth, back to when they skated on neighborhood ponds, screaming with glee during pickup hockey games.

Or, perhaps, just screaming.

Maybe screaming is a slight exaggeration, but Andrej Meszaros, the Flyers' dependable 26-year-old defenseman, admits he is one of the few NHL players who despised playing on a river or a pond during his younger days.

The player known as "Mez" didn't fear getting hit with a puck or stick. He feared falling through the ice.

"I was always scared and terrified of going on the river because I wasn't sure if it was going to be frozen enough, so I just played street hockey," he said the other day, laughing. "It was safer, you know!

"I tried to always play inside," added Meszaros, who grew up in Slovakia. "I never played outside, but my buddies used to play on the river."

He paused.

"Actually, I did play outside. It was like a basketball court and they put water on it and it froze. It wasn't a river, so I wasn't afraid of falling through."

There will be no fear, of course, when the Flyers skate at Citizens Bank Park.

"Hopefully the weather will be good, and it'll be nice and sunny and a full house," Meszaros said. "I never dreamed of doing this. My dream was to play in the NHL, and to play outside is special. My family is going to be here, so I'm really excited for them to be here and watch me play outside."

This will be Meszaros' first outdoor game, but many Flyers played in the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park, where the Boston Bruins were outplayed for most of the game but rallied for a 2-1 overtime win.

"It will be very cool. I can't wait," Flyers center Danny Briere said. "The first time around, I thought it was going to be a gimmicky kind of game, but looking back, it was one of the best experiences of my career. And it's not just the game itself. It's everything around the game - the practice outside the day before, the family skate, the preparation.

"You walk in and look up at the sky. That's one of the things that's so cool about it. I was totally wrong in my first impression I had when I found out we were playing at Fenway. So this time round, I'm really looking forward to it and I'm a lot more excited."

A lot of the Flyers, including Briere, said the highlight of the 2010 Winter Classic was having an outdoor practice that was accompanied by snow the day before game in Boston.

When you watched the giggling, smiling players throwing snowballs at each other as they practiced breakaways, it was like a time machine had taken them back to their youth. It was a scene that Norman Rockwell would have enjoyed painting.

"It started snowing and that was the most perfect setup you could possibly hope for," Briere said. "I don't know the forecast for this year's game" - 50 degrees and mostly clear was predicted entering the weekend - "but that's what I remember the most from the first one."

Defenseman Matt Carle said the Winter Classic "has taken on a life of its own. I don't want to say it's compared to the Super Bowl or anything, but it's a pretty important game and you want to win it. To be able to play in one was great, and to be able to play in two is even more special, especially to play it in Philly. It's going to be unbelievable."

Because the rink is set back from the stands, the players feel as if they are in their own little world.

"When you're on the ice out there, it's almost like you're in your own surroundings. The crowd is so far away. You can hear them, but it's pretty quiet on the ice," Carle said. "It's pretty cool. It's almost like a calm out there and you can communicate, but at the same time, there's 50,000 people there, so it has a pretty special feel. I don't know if it's like that in the football stadiums because obviously I've never played there, but in the baseball stadiums, that's how it seems to work. And it's a big thrill to be out there."

Carle playfully used an Ilya Bryzgalov-ism when describing what it's like to play outdoors.

"It's pretty rare when you look up and you can see the sky - or the whole universe, if you want to quote Bryz," Carle said with a grin. "It's neat. The last time in Boston, the weather was perfect. I remember how crazy it was with the weather leading up to the game. . . . They were anticipating rain because it was supposed to be a little warmer, but when the game rolled around, it was 32, 35 degrees, and when the overtime started, it started sprinkling snow. It was a perfect setting, and you just hope for that because it makes it that much more special. It even adds to it if a little snow falls, because when you were a kid and skating on ponds and outdoor rinks, that's what you pictured it as."

To Carle, the Winter Classic conjures memories of playing outdoors when he was a teenager in Alaska, where he and his friends would clear the snow off a huge marsh and play pickup games.

To Bryzgalov, it stirs thoughts of about 15 years ago, when he played for a team at an outdoor rink in Russia.

"It was really cold. Big, drunk crowd. Fights. It was very entertaining because fans was right behind the boards," Bryzgalov said.

Bryzgalov hopes rain doesn't affect the game.

"We'll have to wear swimming gear and Speedos," he said. "Rangers vs. Flyers [in] water polo!"

Now that is a scary thought.