OTTAWA– Strip away the bright lights, the cold air, the ice conditions, the outdoor atmosphere and all the distraction that comes with it because this “Classic” promises to be something slightly different than the dozens we’ve seen since the Montreal Canadiens beat the Edmonton Oilers in the inaugural Heritage Classic back in 2003.
There’s no manufactured rivalry to Saturday’s edition—dubbed the Scotiabank NHL 100 Classic in celebration of the league’s 100th birthday. This isn’t a game between two teams who have no animosity between them or two near the top of the standings with little to gain from an all-out effort in conditions that are anything but optimal, either.
This is a game between two teams in the Canadiens and hometown Senators who have a healthy dislike for one another, two teams desperate for points, and two teams who have been trudging—seemingly straight uphill and with the weight of the world on their shoulders—through their schedules this year.
This might be as close to seeing a game like this play out with a playoff feel to it.
“It’s not an easy match up,” said Canadiens defenceman Karl Alzner after the Canadiens tested out the rink at Landsdowne Park with 30 km/h winds swirling, flurries falling and the temperature hovering around -23 Celsius (with the chill factor). “If [conditions] aren’t ideal out there [Saturday], it makes things that much tougher because you need every advantage you can get out there to play against a team like that.”
Alzner was referring to a Senators team that sits in 15th place in the Eastern Conference, five points back of the Canadiens and coming off a win on Wednesday after only recording one other in its 13 prior games. They are fighting for a chance to stay together as a team—with trade rumours drifiting through the air at warp speed—and a chance to regain footing in a playoff race that promises to come down to the wire in the Atlantic Division.
The Canadiens aren’t far ahead. They’re three points out of the wildcard position, having played one more game than the New York Rangers who occupy it, and two points back of the Boston Bruins (who have three games in hand and have hit their stride of late by winning seven of their last 10). This will be the first of seven straight games on the road for them–a trip which that they acknowledge will have considerable bearing on which direction management will take ahead of this year’s February trade deadline.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien was all smiles on Friday and was happy to see his team soaking in the unique experience of practising in the open air.
But he also made it clear the fun was for Friday and that serious business is at hand on Saturday.
“The endgame here is that there are two important points on the line for both teams,” he said. “There two big points in the standings, and it’s a divisional game, so there is ample reason for us to be just as ready for this game as we would any other, even if this one is taking place outside. There’s a lot at stake and we realize it.
“The guys are prepared, and we’ve already begun preparing our game plan, and I’m happy we’re enjoying it. But it’s still important enough to maintain a business-type of ambiance because we have work to do tomorrow.”
All signs point to the Canadiens icing the same lineup they dressed for a 2-1 overtime win over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday. That means Carey Price will make his 10th consecutive start in goal and forward Artturi Lehkonen will miss his 15th consecutive game since a nagging injury took him out of play on Nov. 12.
It also means Max Pacioretty and Paul Byron, who both left Thursday’s game for brief stints to treat whatever was ailing them, will both participate.
Both players were instrumental in helping the Canadiens beat the Bruins 5-1 in the 2016 Winter Classic at Foxboro Stadium, with Pacioretty scoring a goal and adding an assist, and Byron scoring the winner and adding an insurance marker.
Pacioretty drew a parallel to where the Senators are currently at to where the Canadiens were coming into that game (they had lost 11 of 14 games in the December of 2015 before beating the Bruins on Jan. 1).
“It just so happens that both these teams have gone through ups and downs this year,” said Pacioretty. “Two years ago we were in their shoes, so we know what [they] feel like. You kind of just go out there and forget about the rest of it; you don’t strain yourself with pressure [of] hoping to things turn around and hoping to be the guy to make things turn around. When you come to an event like this, you’re able to breathe and go out there and play hockey and that’s how I felt at the Winter Classic two years ago and that’s how our whole team felt. That’s how they’re going to feel tomorrow.
“We know they’re going to show their best there, but we have to understand it’s a divisional game and these points are huge.”
If the Canadiens are up to that task, this game should have a different feel to it than the other outdoor games we’ve seen over the last 14 years.