Heritage Classic morning dawned bright and cold here, featuring the same crisp weather that had settled in during the middle of last week and - meteorologists be damned - doesn't want to release its grip on the city.
It was a chilly -21C at 9 a.m., but the hourly forecast predicted a warming trend, by almost two degrees per 60 minutes, with the projected high of -7C coming just around puck drop - 4 p.m. local time, which is when the visiting Montreal Canadiens face off against the Calgary Flames in Canada's first NHL outdoor game since 2003, to be played today at McMahon Stadium. Thankfully, temperatures were not expected to drop below -10C for the next three hours either, so barring any lengthy delays, or overtime periods, or a shootout, the ice conditions should be playable for the whole of the contest.
That's the good news for a pair of teams, both immersed in the playoff hunt, and desperately stressing the value of the two points at stake. At some point, the NHL will need to decide, in the future, if they continue to play the odd outdoor game in Canada, if it doesn't make more sense to play them in the fall, the way they did in Edmonton, when the playoff races are less further along. As it is, the great fear in Calgary is that two points loss today might mean the difference in earning a playoff spot, after their 16-4-5 run since Dec. 23 propelled them back in the race. And while Montreal's cushion is a little greater, the Canadiens cannot take anything for granted either. It is why both coaches - Montreal's Jacques Martin and Calgary's Brent Sutter - stressed the importance of the game and the result, and promised that their teams would be ready to play, even if the circumstances of the contest were so unorthodox.
"It's important for the players to enjoy the moment, but come game time, it's competition," said Martin. "And there's a lot at stake for both teams. So I expect both teams are going to be well prepared. Both teams are going to compete hard, and we should see an outstanding hockey game."
Sutter also stressed that it would be business as usual for his team.
"You play a certain way no matter what the circumstances are, and no matter what surroundings are," said Sutter. "It doesn't matter what you're playing, what time of day you play, you've got to play a certain way.
"And I think you've got to expect something to be a little bit different in the game, just because of the circumstances of the weather. But other than that, as far as preparation, as far as the players are concerned, as far as structure, systems, whatever teams use, it doesn't change."
Both Montreal and Calgary conducted their one-and-only practices at McMahon Stadium Saturday, the Canadiens going on in the morning with the sun high in the sky, the Flames following at 2:30 with it starting to drift towards the horizon.
The Flames' Alex Tanguay, a former Hab, reported that he needed some warm weather protection around his ears yesterday, but said otherwise, "it was great. I think weather conditions won't be a factor. Unless it gets really windy, I haven't seen the reports, but other than that, I think everything will be fine and benches are really warm so it shouldn't be an issue at all.
"Hopefully we get a little bit of sun left to affect the goalies in the first period and hopefully we shoot on the right side at that time."
Montreal should get a boost today from the return of Hal Gill and Mike Cammalleri to the line-up. Cammalleri and Tanguay have a little strange shared history. Calgary traded him to Montreal for a first-round pick (their own in 2008) and then flipped a first-rounder to the Los Angeles Kings at the same draft in order to acquire Cammalleri. Tanguay left Montreal as a free agent, signed with Tampa and then signed back with Calgary last summer. Cammalleri, meanwhile, played just the one season with the Flames and effectively took Tanguay's spot with the Habs.
"Getting Michael Cammalleri back gives us some more scoring punch, should help our power play, should help our other lines as well give us more depth," said Martin. :And I think both individuals (along with Gill) bring some leadership to our hockey team and a good example of that was our players not really wanting to get off the ice (Saturday). Right at the end enjoying the moment. And those two are leaders in that department."