Thursday December 31st, 2015

There are level-headed types out there who will say that Friday’s Winter Classic meeting between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., (1 p.m. ET, NBC, live stream on NBC Sports Live Extra) is just a fancy setting for another regular-season game.

Don't listen to ’em.

Outside of 2008, when Sidney Crosby’s shootout goal was the difference as Pittsburgh beat Buffalo in the inaugural event, this year’s contest might be the most critical Winter Classic to date.

It matters in the Atlantic Division standings, with Montreal sitting just one point ahead of the Bruins (who have three games in hand), and both teams looking to gain ground on the upstart, first-place Florida Panthers.

It’s key for two teams looking to get back on track. Boston has lost three of its last four. Montreal, seven of its last eight.

And it’s crucial to two fierce rivals who would like nothing more than to embarrass the other on the regular season’s biggest stage.

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Two points? This is much, much more than that.

Whether the NHL is your religion or this is your annual dip into stick and puck, here’s everything you need to know ahead of the big game:

The rivalry

The NHL boasts its share of great rivalries, but none as old and as deep-seated as this.

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​No two teams have matched up more often in the history of hockey than the Bruins and Canadiens. This game will be their 733rd regular-season meeting. Montreal has dominated the series, winning 357 games to Boston’s 272, including a 2–1 edge in their first three games this season.

But it has been in the playoffs where the hatred has really taken hold. They’ve met 34 times in the postseason, with the Canadiens prevailing 25 times, including all seven battles in the Stanley Cup Final. From 1946 to 1987, the Canadiens won 18 successive series against the Bruins, though the B's enjoyed a nice run in the ’90s, eliminating Montreal four times between 1990–94.

There have been so many memorable encounters along the way: Rocket Richard’s Game 7 winner after being knocked out by Leo Labine in Game 7 of their 1952 series; Ken Dryden and the stunning upset of the Big, Bad Bruins in 1971; the too many men on the ice game in 1979; Nathan Horton’s OT winner in Game 7 on the way to Boston’s last Cup win in 2011. Given this setting, it is possible that there will be another history-making moment in this game.

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This season

Jan. 1 can't come soon enough for the Canadiens. A team that established a franchise record by winning nine straight to start the season comes into this game having set a more dubious mark: Its 3–1 loss to the Panthers on Tuesday night left Montreal with a league-worst 3–11 record for the month of December. Never before, in 98 seasons, had the Habs dropped 11 games in one calendar month.

The long-term lower body injury that has sidelined netminder Carey Price certainly contributed to the wheels falling off. The trio of Mike Condon, Dustin Tokarski and Ben Scrivens has been more down than up while filling in for the reigning MVP, and their inability to steal the occasional game has contributed to the length of this skid. But the loss of Price is really felt in the team’s mental game. This is a more fragile squad without him, one that plays like it knows the next mistake is certain to end up in the back of the net.

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That lack of confidence is compounded by the inability of the offense to cover up for those mistakes, and by the relative inexperience of the leadership group. Max Pacioretty is up against a real challenge in his first year wearing the C, and so far he hasn’t been able to steer his teammates in the right direction.

The mood is decidedly different in Boston. Burdened by an inexperienced blueline, the B’s got off to a rough start. But with something close to a complete lineup over the past few weeks, they’ve found their groove. Both Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg have shaken off the effects of some long-term injuries, which has helped to lock down the back end. Up front, the Bruins are benefiting from a more effective transition game and a lethal power play that’s helped them to average 3.14 goals per game, tied for second-most in the league.

Both teams could be missing key players. Price is out for the game, though it was announced Thursday that the Canadiens’ offensive spark plug, forward Brendan Gallagher, will return for the Winter Classic after missing 17 games.

Boston will be without top center David Krejci, who was injured earlier this week against the Senators, and Brad Marchand, who was suspended for three games on Wednesday as a a result of a low-bridge hit on Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki.

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Who to watch

Tuukka Rask, Bruins goaltender

Rask has recovered nicely from a slow start, going 9-2-2 in his past 13 decisions including a 32-save performance in a 3–1 win over the Canadiens back on Dec. 9. That one looms large: It was just his fourth career win over Montreal against 17 losses.

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Patrice Bergeron, Bruins center

Bergeron is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season. He scored two goals with the extra man in Boston’s 7–3 rout of Ottawa on Tuesday night, giving him 18 power play points, second only to Chicago’s Patrick Kane.

Ryan Spooner, Bruins center

With Krejci on the sidelines, Spooner has earned a promotion to the second line, between wingers Matt Beleskey and Loui Eriksson. He’s an intuitive playmaker who excels at drawing defenders and creating space for his linemates. He’s notched multiple points in four of his past nine games, including a pair of assists against the Senators on Tuesday.

P.K. Subban, Canadiens defenseman

Beloved in Montreal, reviled everywhere else, Subban is sure to get a rise out of the crowd at Gillette Field one way or another. The former Norris Trophy winner as the league’s best defenseman typically ramps up his physical game against Boston—he’s earned 41 career penalty minutes vs. the B’s, more than any other team—but with just one goal on the season, he’s feeling pressure to deliver more offensively. This could be his breakout game.

Mike Condon, Canadiens goaltender

Coach Michel Therrien has yet to name his starter for the contest, but it’s a good bet that Condon, who has split two career starts against the B’s, will get the nod. The Boston native might even win over a few of the locals with his Winter Classic mask—it pays tribute to the NFL’s Patriots, including coach Bill Belichick. It’s possible though that Scrivens could get the call after turning in a solid 27-save performance in his Canadiens debut on Tuesday night. The veteran has some recent experience skating outdoors: Scrivens was between the pipes for the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors on Dec. 19 when they dropped a 3–2 decision to the Stockton Heat at Raley Field in Sacramento, Calif.

Alex Galchenyuk, Canadiens center

The 21-year-old has struggled with consistency this season, but he always seems to bring his A game against the Black and Gold. Galchenyuk has a team-high five points in three games against the B’s this season, all assists. He’s coming into this one on a roll as well, with points in five consecutive games.

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What to watch

Boston’s power play

The Bruins don’t get many chances with the extra man—only Anaheim has fewer than Boston’s 102 opportunities—but they make the most of them. The B’s are clicking at a league-best 29.4%, not too far off the all-time pace of 31.9% set by the 1977-78 Canadiens. Injuries to key players like Krejci and defenseman Torey Krug have forced them to switch up their look, but the basic concept remains the same: lots of movement at the point, with pucks being fed to Spooner on the half wall, who then looks for someone down low, usually Eriksson or Bergeron who are tied for the team lead with seven power play goals each.

Montreal’s offense

It hasn’t been the loss of Price that has jammed a stick in Montreal’s spokes—it’s their inability to score. They’ve scored as many as three goals just twice in December, while averaging just 1.57 goals per game, a league low. Captain Pacioretty leads the team with 15 goals and 29 points, but has scored just twice in his past 13 games. Tomas Plekanec ranks second with 28 points, but has just one goal in his past 23 games. If Gallagher (9-10-19 in 22 games) returns, he could provide a huge spark for this group.

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