CALGARY – For the Calgary Flames, the Heritage Classic is a road game at home that they need to win.
The hype, hoopla and wonder over what the weather will be like for Sunday’s outdoor game at McMahon Stadium takes a back seat in their minds to the two points they’ll try to take off the Montreal Canadiens.
“There’s going to be some different elements and different preparation, but once the game gets going we have a job to do,” Flames winger Alex Tanguay said Friday. “We need the two points.”
Calgary (30-22-8) was in a four-way tie for fifth in the Western Conference with 68 points Friday, but ranked ninth because other teams had games in hand. The Flames were just three points behind third-place Phoenix, but also just three ahead of 10th-place Minnesota.
The Habs (31-21-7) also want to secure a win Sunday as they battle the Boston Bruins for top spot in the Northeast Division.
While the Flames will have the majority of the approximately 40,000 spectators cheering for them Sunday, they will be out in the elements at McMahon.
“Personally, I’ll prepare like it’s a road game,” Flames captain Jarome Iginla said. “You don’t know exactly the way the boards or the glass is going to be.
“You’re not exactly used to it. It’s almost like a neutral setting with everybody not knowing the ice.”
The Flames and Habs get their first chance to test the ice and boards during Saturday’s practices at McMahon as well as learn how to best manage the cold.
Environment Canada has altered its forecast from what had been a spectator-friendly high of -1 C for Sunday’s game to a colder peak of -7 C with clear skies.
“This is going to be interesting,” Tanguay observed. “It was supposed to be nice as of yesterday, but the weather has changed on us. The trainers have some of the gear that the football players wear outside so it will be interesting to wear that and see how it really is.”
Wind, the setting sun and glare from the stadium lights reflecting off the ice are other considerations for the players. Tinted visors, or even the eye black that football and baseball players daub under their eyes could be part of their kit for Sunday’s game (CBC, RDS, Versus, pre-game 5 p.m. ET).
The players will try to find long underwear that will keep them warm while not constricting their movements. They’ll be changing their sweaty undergarments between periods.
The goaltenders are especially vulnerable as they don’t move as much as their teammates and don’t skate to the heated bench between shifts. Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff was considering wearing something like a neoprene wetsuit but didn’t want to compromise his flexibility.
“As a goalie, you don’t want it to be too much because then you’re stiff,” Kiprusoff said. “Tomorrow is a big day to try something out.”
Montreal goaltender Carey Price, who is expected to unveil a new mask for Sunday’s game, is watching the weather forecast with resignation.
“I was hoping for somewhere around zero to -5 , but if it gets colder than that, there’s not a whole lot we can really do about it except put our long johns on,” he said.
Montreal forward Scott Gomez, who is from Anchorage, Alaska, feels this is the time to prove how hardy he is in the cold.
“I do some have Alaskan pride in me,” he said. “I’d like to say I have an edge.
“I have bragging rights about that and I definitely let the guys know. You also have to back it up and it was cold walking to the bus.”
Calgary’s voice of experience in NHL outdoor games is defenceman Steve Staios, who was an Oiler when Edmonton hosted Montreal in the last Heritage Classic played in 2003. The wind chill for that game was -30 C so Calgary’s forecast looks downright balmy by comparison.
Staios says the ice condition trumps everything in creating a quality game outside. Frigid temperatures make ice brittle and it can break under the players’ skates.
“If the ice doesn’t hold up things start to slow down and get a little chippy,” the 37-year-old said. “I remember the game in Edmonton, there wasn’t a lot of flow and a lot of plays made. It was more a test of will.”
A warm front is now predicted to move in Monday in time for the Western Hockey League’s outdoor game at McMahon involving the Calgary Hitmen and Regina Pats. But it will come too late for Sunday’s Tim Horton’s Heritage Classic.
Uncertainty about the weather may have kept the Heritage Classic from selling out in recent days. There were still tickets available Friday from the game’s official ticket broker Ticketmaster. Another ticket outlet, ShowTimeTickets.com, offered some at a discount. Several ticket-buyers were auctioning theirs off on eBay.
The Flames, 7-1-2 in their last 10, are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They were second-last in the Western Conference at the end of December, but roared into playoff contention thanks to a 14-4-5 record since general manager Darryl Sutter resigned Dec. 28.
With less than 10 points separating sixth from 13th, the Flames can’t afford to take their foot off the gas.
“We’ll look at our position Sunday morning and we might be three or four points back if everybody keeps winning their games the way we have been,” Tanguay said.
Montreal has a little more breathing room in sixth spot in the Eastern Conference, but they’ve gone 4-4-2 in their last 10. The Habs hosted Calgary in a wild one Jan. 17 when they squandered a 4-0 lead midway through the second period and won in overtime on a goal from rookie defenceman P.K. Subban.
Neither Kiprusoff, nor Montreal counterpart Alex Auld were in net at the end of that game, pulled for Henrik Karlsson and Price respectively.
The Flames wore half of Heritage retro uniforms during Friday’s practice at the Scotiabank Saddledome. They paired the barber-pole striped socks and cream-and-beige pants with their regular jerseys, which wasn’t easy on the eyes.
“The pants and the socks with practice jerseys, not so good,” Staios agreed.
Staios and Flames winger David Moss are Calgary’s players with outdoor-game experience. Moss played for the University of Michigan versus Michigan State at Spartan Field in 2001. He also played for the U.S. in an outdoor game at last year’s world men’s hockey championship in Germany, but in a stadium with a retractable roof and less exposure to the elements than McMahon.
The Habs have few players with experience in outdoor games even though they were one of the two clubs in the 2003 Heritage Classic. Defenceman Andrei Markov would have been the lone veteran from that game at Commonwealth Stadium, but he had season-ending surgery on his right knee in December.
Defenceman Jaroslav Spacek played in the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo where his Sabres hosted Pittsburgh, but Montreal left him at home with a lower-body injury.
Defenceman James Wisniewski, a member of the Chicago Blackhawks when they hosted Detroit at Wrigley Field in 2009, is day-to-day after taking a puck in the cheekbone in Thursday’s 4-1 loss to Edmonton.
Former Flame and Montreal forward Mike Cammalleri, Moss’s Wolverine teammate in 2001, hasn’t played in a month because of a separated shoulder. He started practising again this week and is a possibility for Sunday’s game.