NEW YORK -- Tradition, pageantry and playoff race urgency all will meet Sunday under forecast clear, cold western skies when the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens take to the ice in front of 41,000 fans at McMahon Stadium in Calgary for the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic™.
The Flames-Canadiens showdown marks the first regular-season NHL game contested outdoors in Canada since the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 22, 2003. CBC and RDS will carry the game in Canada and VERSUS will provide coverage in the United States. NHL Radio will have the live action across North American radio. NHL Network will provide pre- and post-game programming and NHL.com will provide extensive digital coverage.
The Flames (30-22-8) head into the NHL Heritage Classic locked in the League's tightest conference playoff race ever. Just nine points separate the 10 teams ranked third though 12th in the West, with Calgary sandwiched in the ninth spot. One of four clubs with 68 points, they are a mere three points behind the third-place Phoenix Coyotes yet only three ahead of the 10th-ranked Minnesota Wild.
To get in this position the red-hot Flames have fashioned one of the most dramatic comebacks in the NHL this season. Two months ago the club ranked 14th in the Western Conference with a 14-18-3 record and was eight points adrift of a playoff berth. Since then, the Flames have jumped to ninth thanks to a 16-4-5 record in their past 25 starts. They will enter McMahon Stadium on Sunday winners of 10 of their past 13.
The Canadiens (31-21-7) enter Sunday's game in the midst of a season-long battle for first place in the Northeast Division with the archrival Boston Bruins. They currently trail the Bruins by two points, 71 to 69, with the Bruins holding one game in hand.
The Flames and Canadiens will be hard-pressed to top the drama from their meeting earlier this season, a 5-4 overtime win for the Canadiens at Bell Centre in Montreal on Jan. 17. Montreal took a 4-0 lead midway through the second period but the Flames roared back to tie the score early in the third. The Canadiens recovered and got the win when rookie defenseman P.K. Subban scored the first game-winning goal of his NHL career at 1:06 of overtime.
Neither starting goaltender made it to the end of the game. Flames starter Miikka Kiprusoff was chased after allowing four goals on 17 shots, replaced by Henrik Karlsson with his team down 4-0. After stopping the first 16 shots he faced, Montreal's Alex Auld allowed four of the next eight past him and gave way to Carey Price at the 2:56 mark of the third with the score tied 4-4.
Despite the loss, the Flames did earn a point and remain the only club in the NHL this season to collect points in a game they trailed by four or more goals.
In preparing for the Calgary weather, both clubs can draw on previous experience from recent outdoor games:
Flames defenseman Steve Staios skated for the Edmonton Oilers against the Canadiens in the inaugural Heritage Classic in 2003 under frigid conditions and logged 28:06 in ice time -- the highest figure by any player in an NHL outdoor game. Calgary forward David Moss has appeared in two outdoor games, representing the University of Michigan in the 'Cold War' against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium in 2001 and skating for Team USA against host Germany at the 2010 IIHF World Championships.
For the Canadiens, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek lined up for the Buffalo Sabres when they hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2008 NHL Winter Classic at snowy Ralph Wilson Stadium and defenseman James Wisniewski was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks team that met the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field in Chicago the following year. Forward Mike Cammalleri was a teammate of the Flames' Moss at the University of Michigan for their 'Cold War' clash with Michigan State.
The Canadiens also can count on the experience of team equipment manager Pierre Gervais and athletic therapist Graham Rynbend, who were with the club when they prevailed 4-3 over the Oilers in the extreme cold at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium in the 2003 NHL Heritage Classic. Among the innovations they hatched to assist their players under such difficult circumstances: frequent runs from the dressing room to the bench to provide perfectly warmed tea and chicken broth.
The 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic™ will be the latest chapter in the special history of these inter-conference rivals .The Flames and Canadiens are the only clubs to have contested an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final in the 40-plus years of the NHL's expansion era (since 1968), doing so twice in a four-season span. The Canadiens captured their 23rd Stanley Cup by defeating the Flames in five games in 1985-86 and the Flames won their first and only Stanley Cup in a six-game triumph over the Canadiens in 1988-89, becoming the only visiting club to hoist the trophy at the Montreal Forum in its storied history.
Many players who took part in these hotly-contested series will be in Calgary this weekend to reunite, reminisce and skate in the Outdoor Alumni Game at McMahon Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Former Flames including Theo Fleury, Al MacInnis, Lanny McDonald, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts will be joined by Canadiens standouts such as Guy Carbonneau, Bob Gainey, Craig Ludwig, Brian Skrudland and Ryan Walter.