The Heritage Classic weekend was about celebrating hockey and its roots.
The finale, however, is about two points in the standings — two points both the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames desperately want to earn Sunday afternoon at McMahon Stadium.
Despite being as hot as any other NHL team over the past couple of months, the Flames can’t ignore the fact they’re still outside the Western Conference’s elite eight.
“You want your players to experience this in a very positive way, enjoy it, take the great things out of it, but it’s game day and they know it,” said Flames head coach Brent Sutter. “They understand how important it is.
“We’ve got 22 games left in the regular season and they’re all huge games for us. We’ll be ready to play, and I’m sure Montreal will, too.”
At least the Canadiens have a hold on a playoff position right now.
Despite their recent struggles — a 1-4-1 run heading into the outdoor game expected to be played before 41,000 fans — the Habs sit sixth in the Eastern Conference.
The Flames are on a 16-4-5 tear and have lost just once in regulation time in their last 13 games but are stuck in ninth spot, although just outside the top eight.
Not that long ago, it appeared this game wouldn’t mean much to the Flames. Certainly not when they were mired in 14th spot in the Western Conference.
“It does mean a great deal, and we wanted it to mean a great deal a few months ago,” said left-winger Alex Tanguay. “We’re all enjoying what’s happening right now and it’s a different atmosphere, but once the game starts, it’s business as usual. We have to find ways to win.”
The extra scrutiny from participating in a marquee event has brought out all the questions as to how the Flames, seemingly destined to become also-rans as the season wore on, pulled into the playoff race.
“We started playing a lot better. Everybody raised their game,” said centre Olli Jokinen. “Nobody quit. Everybody wants to be part of this team and everybody’s been playing better.”
“We felt we had a better team than we were showing,” Tanguay added. “It was certainly frustrating for us not to get it done from Day 1, but we knew all along if we played the way we were capable of playing, with the skill level and personnel we have, we were a good enough team to win.
“Right now, you look at our game, I don’t think any of the players are surprised with the success we’re having. I think we’re playing up to our potential. I still feel we can play better.”
And if you think watching themselves fall a spot in the standings while other teams play their games in hand would bother the Flames, guess again.
“I think the reason we’ve had success the past while is because we’ve been focusing on the task at hand,” said defenceman Steve Staios. “If we looked ahead a month or so ago, we wouldn’t believe we were in this position. We’ve been taking care of our business every day.”
The Habs may be feeling good about their position, but they are struggling.
Wins have been hard to come by in the past couple of weeks.
“When you look at our games, other than the one against Edmonton, they’ve all be pretty close,” said Habs defenceman P.K. Subban. “We’ve been playing pretty good hockey, but been on the other end of some bad bounces. We’ve just have to continue to play our game, come with energy and not worry about the end goal.”