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Classic a first-place showdown for Bruins, Canadiens

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Claude Julien and Bill Belichick laced 'em up and took to the ice Thursday morning, a hockey coach in his element and a football coach in his stadium, two adopted New Englanders turned champions.

Julien, the coach of the Boston Bruins, has developed a friendship, a special kinship, with Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots. Belichick had Julien out to Patriots practice on Wednesday, so Julien returned the favor the day before the Bruins were scheduled to play the Montreal Canadiens in the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium on New Year's (1 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports).

"I asked him if he wanted to skate, and he said he'd love to," Julien said. "Not just an enjoyable skate, but an enjoyable moment with him. In my book, it's unique and a lot of fun."

However, by the time Belichick presumably had his skates off and was heading to Miami to put final preparations in for his next game, Julien was putting his team through a workout on the very same ice.

Already a veteran -- and winner -- of two outdoor games (2003 Heritage Classic, 2010 Winter Classic), Julien doesn't need to be told that unique and fun take a backseat to preparation and focus in these events, particularly a game that's big in regular-season terms regardless of venue.

One point separates the Canadiens (45) from the Bruins (44) in the Atlantic Division standings. The winner will leap the Florida Panthers (46 points) for first place in the division.

"First place really is on the line," Bruins forward Max Talbot said.

True, in a micro sense. There is a lot more at stake in a macro sense.

The Bruins have survived and thrived this season despite plugging holes in their lineup that result from injuries and even suspensions.

Boston won't have two of its most important players on Friday because center David Krejci is injured and left wing Brad Marchand is suspended.

But under the direction of Julien, a potential Jack Adams Award candidate at this point, the Bruins have gone 14-6-3 since starting the season 6-6-1. They have the League's No. 1 power play (29.4 percent) and goalie Tuukka Rask has found his game after a rough start.

They're coming off of a 7-3 win against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, a game that showed the Bruins can and should win with a combination of offense and snarl, two characteristics Boston fans crave out of their hockey team.

They can't lose their grip on all that's gone well in the Winter Classic, on a stage that makes a regular-season game feel bigger than any other, in an event that, because of its magnitude, makes winning feel sweeter and losing feel more devastating than it normally does.

"I remember my game in Philadelphia [the 2012 Winter Classic between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers], it was kind of the same thing, divisional rivals and we were battling, but I think in that game maybe our focus wasn't 100 percent," Talbot said. "You lose the game and you're like stunned. This experience, the Winter Classic, will be as fun as getting the two points. You don't want to have a sour taste in your mouth."

The Canadiens have had a sour taste for too long.

They entered December with a 10-point lead in the Atlantic Division; their 39 points were the most in the NHL. They enter January chasing in the division, having lost 11 of 14 games in December, all in regulation.

"We're so desperate right now for wins," Montreal forward Dale Weise said. "You see where the standings are, we had such a big lead and we're sliding down, so we're desperate for some points."

Weise suggested the Winter Classic couldn't have come at a better time for the Canadiens. He thinks the fun practice they had Thursday could be a prelude to an important win on the big stage Friday, especially with forward Brendan Gallagher scheduled to return to the lineup after missing 17 games and watching his team go 5-11-1 without him.

"It couldn't have come at a better time for us," Weise said. "A lot of guys were having fun out there [Thursday], like when we were younger and out on the pond playing with our buddies. That's the perfect mindset for us now. When you lose nine, 10 in a row, coming to the dressing room is not much fun, so it was good to lighten the atmosphere."

He wasn't the only one thinking along those lines.

"I think that this is perfect for us," Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban said. "A stage like this, where everybody can get up for and is refreshed, right? Your family and friends there and everybody watching. So you want to be at your best. I think when we're at our best, there are not too many teams in the League that can compete with us."

But to be that team on Friday, to be that team on the big stage, in front of what should be more than three times the amount of fans they normally have surrounding them at Bell Centre or TD Garden, focus and preparation are key, even when unique and fun are expected.

This game is as important as it is special. First place is literally on the line, but so is momentum, both a chance to build on some (Boston) and another opportunity to stop a spiral down the standings (Montreal).

"We all know how tight the standings are and where we stand with each other," Julien said. "The game has great meaning to it."

Sounds like something Belichick would say.

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