Winter Classic brings out the best of Canadiens-Bruins rivalry

George Stroumboulopoulos, Nick Kypreos and Elliotte Friedman discuss the Winter Classic’s top player perfomances, plus potential locations for next year.

It can be said of both the Winter Classic and the longstanding rivalry waged between this year’s participants: It’s the game you know, but with wider eyes and flared nostrils.

Hockey is hockey, regardless of whether or not it features a roof. But when you take the lid off the way the NHL does each Jan. 1, the fresh air pouring in causes everything to swell with significance. Suddenly the boos get louder, the awws cut deeper and the win is that much sweeter.

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“It was really, really cool,” said Habs defenceman P.K. Subban after his team’s 5-1 victory at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. “The NHL did a great job preparing everything. It’s easy for the winning team to love everything about the game, but the fact is when you look at the whole pre-game show, the national anthem, the fireworks, the plane flying over, family and friends there, it’s great.

“The icing on the cake, then, is the win.”

As novelty gives way to routine at this, the eighth Classic, it’s understandable for some fatigue to creep in. If so inclined, you can let the fake snow and the bands playing bubblegum-brand rock guide your feelings for the event. Doing so, though, comes at the expense of fully enjoying the carnival atmosphere that permeates every last corner—especially when Boston and Montreal are on centre stage.

“We were driving down the highway [to the game] and you could see some Bruin fans weren’t too happy to see our bus,” said two-goal man Paul Byron.

Any contest that features kids—some of them likely fresh off waving their fist at the Habs bus—staging numerous road hockey games throughout parking lots tinged with grillin’ smoke has our unconditional seal of approval. As the partisans shuffled inside to their seats, the most basic element of this rivalry—the sharp contrast in jersey colours—provided a poignant “us vs. them” vibe.

“You could feel it right away, the intensity of the rivalry,” Byron said. “These are the games that matter.”

Yeah, this was the Zdeno Chara-sized version of hockey.

Speaking of the beastly Boston defenceman, has there been a Winter Classic roughhousing moment that felt quite so right as Chara grabbing mighty mite Habs right winger Brendan Gallagher, essentially by the face, and throwing him to the ice after the latter, predictably, got in goalie Tuukka Rask’s kitchen?

Or how about Montreal centre David Desharnais and Bruins blue-liner Torey Krug—two guys who rarely mix it up and might equal the height of Chara if one stood on the other—getting frisky to the point of coincidental four-minute roughing penalties in the first? That had all the markings of two small guys playing with shorter fuses because of the opponent and surroundings.

And did you catch Desharnais’ exuberant hop after opening the scoring 74 seconds into the contest? (Actually, that may have had absolutely nothing to do with the Classic and everything to do with the fact Desharnais hadn’t found the net in 17 outings.)

If Desharnais nearly jumped out of his skates, Subban was making a statement with his personalized pair, given a vintage look to match the spirit of the game. As for the old-timey suit and hat Subban showed up in; what else would you expect from the guy who loves a big show more than anybody in hockey?

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That look-at-me attitude is partially why the boos we referenced were most visceral when Subban was introduced to 67,246 people before the game. Assuming 50,000 of them were Bruins backers, that must make Subban the most-jeered Canadien during a single sitting in Boston. Of course, he’s up there among the career leaders, too.

The awws were never more pronounced than when Massachusetts boy Mike Condon made a leather flash worthy of the pre-game pyrotechnics on Ryan Spooner with, wait for it, 0.1 remaining in the second period.

That preserved Montreal’s 3-0 lead for the moment, though the home supporters did get to let out one hearty “Yeah!” when Boston briefly made it a game at 3-1 early in the third.

However, when the Habs reestablished a three-goal lead a few minutes later, some of those fans started streaming for the gates. As noted, this was still a hockey game, after all, and watching your favourite team get whipped by your least-favourite one is never any fun. Today, it hurt that much more.

“I think we played one of our worst games at the worst time,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said.

Just to exacerbate things, this is one rematch Julien and the B’s won’t soon get. And, according to Subban, that’s something for the entire hockey world to lament.

“There will be a ton more Winter Classic games, but Montreal-Boston, I don’t think it gets any bigger than that,” he said. “I’m very happy to know I played in it.”