CALGARY -- Fans throughout Calgary, the province of Alberta and beyond have anticipated the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic since it was announced many months ago.
Now the wait is over.
With fans flocking to McMahon Stadium over the past few days to fill Spectator Plaza, take in the Alumni game between members of the Flames and Canadiens championship teams from the 1980s, and now for Sunday's battle between Calgary and Montreal (6 p.m. ET, Versus, CBC, RDS), it's been a festive atmosphere leading up to the first puck drop.
But, with all due respect to the sport's pond-hockey heritage, this game is serious business for both teams -- the most important game of the six NHL outdoor Classics. Both teams badly need the two points that are up for grabs Sunday. Playoff spots await and you don't have look any farther than last season's regular season standings to see whether two points can make a difference. The Canadiens finished in the No. 8 spot last season, one point ahead of the New York Rangers and just one slip away from a long offseason rather than a magical run that eliminated both the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, both in thrilling seven-game series.
"I think that we are very well aware that it's going to be a fun experience and very unique, but we have to be professional about it," Calgary forward Alex Tanguay said. "We know that those two points might be the difference for us getting in and us getting out. So we have to make sure that we don't give away games. Our fans are certainly going to help us a lot more on that one. It's going to be very loud outside with 40-plus thousand fans. For sure, we are not forgetting the task at hand."
The Flames have gone 16-4-5 since late December, but all that's given them is the opportunity to be part of the Western Conference logjam competing for a playoff spot. They began play Sunday as one of four teams with 68 points, but due to tiebreakers found themselves in ninth place.
"It's a fun experience," captain Jarome Iginla said. "For a lot of us, it's going to be once in a lifetime. It's going to be pretty cool, but it is a very important game for us. Two points means so much right now. We want to enjoy it, but at the same time, make sure we're prepared."
The situation isn't quite as dire for the Canadiens, who are closer to the first-place Bruins in the Northeast Division than they are to dropping out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference. They're nine points ahead of the ninth-place Sabres entering this game, but they're also just 1-3-2 during their past six games so they want to break out of their current slump as soon as possible.
"It makes it even more fun," Montreal forward Scott Gomez said. "We need these points bad. When you're on the road, you look at the way Calgary's playing, it's a big challenge for us. It'll be the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of … the main thing is getting the points and playing a good, solid game, but it's like anything in life, it's going to be a great experience and something we'll always talk about."
Rookie defenseman P.K. Subban was another member of the Canadiens keeping the proper perspective.
"I'm just going to try my best to enjoy every moment of it," Subban said. "We're all professionals and I think we understand what's at stake at this point in the season. Every point is so important, so we understand that we still have to have that mentality that we have to go out there and get points when we can."
The game-time temperatures Sunday are expected to be around -13 degrees Celsius (8-10 degrees Fahrenheit).
"I was pretty excited for a while. People were talking about plus-2, plus-1, minus-1," Iginla said. "Now I hear minus-11 or minus-10. It's not quite as exciting but maybe it'll change still. If not, we'll make the most of it."
Gomez, who was born in Anchorage, Alaska, shook off the talk of frigid weather as little concern.
"I remember it being this cold out and guys wouldn't wear socks," he said of playing outdoors while growing up. "You heat up pretty fast, I think people don't realize that. After a couple laps your body's going."