Winter Classic more than glitz and cameras this year

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A Winter Classic game has never meant this much.

That's the raw, unvarnished truth of this season's Jan. 1 spectacle.

Take away all the glitz and cameras leading up to the NHL's greatest regular-season sales pitch and, for once, the hype is actually being driven from the right place: the competition on the ice.

And the players wearing eye black on each side of the NHL's top rivalry say so.

"It's a big stage and it could do a lot for our club," Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said after Thursday's outdoor practice.

"It's a huge game," said Boston Bruins winger Matt Beleskey.

"It would mean a ton," Habs forward Lars Eller responded when asked about what a Winter Classic victory would represent.

"It's a big game for us," said Bruins star center Patrice Bergeron.

Just having the league's most bitter rivalry in the New Year's Day extravaganza would have been enough to make it the best Winter Classic yet.

But add in the near-panic desperation enveloping the Habs after a month-long slump, combined with a Bruins team that, while exceeding expectations so far this season, always gives you the feeling that it could fall apart so easily.

Without being guilty of hyperbole, you get the sense that whichever team collects two points in the standings here before 67,000 fans at Gillette Stadium may very well feel a momentous wind in its sails entering the second half of the season.

"Absolutely," agreed Habs center David Desharnais. "It's a new year, everything is behind us. A good win could give us momentum for the rest of the season.

"They're very important points. They're a point behind us with three games in hand. We want to take advantage of this game."

A Bruins victory Friday would leapfrog them past the Canadiens in the standings for the first time all season. And what a stage to do it on.

"Just in the standings it's big, but being the Winter Classic, being on the big stage, it's got that playoff feel," Beleskey said. "It's a big showdown. We're looking forward to it."

As Beleskey pointed out, Boston's 3-1 win at Montreal on Dec. 9 hopefully bodes well for his team. The Bruins haven't beaten the Habs in two straight games since their 2014 playoff series, which Montreal won in seven memorable encounters. The Canadiens have owned them ever since, including winning the first two games this season.

So yeah, even changing the momentum of this recently one-sided rivalry would be worth the two points alone for the B's.

"Anytime we play Montreal, it's a big game," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "It seems like it's a bigger game. Obviously, it's a big rivalry, and the focus is always on those games more than maybe other games. We knew we had our share of disappointments with this team. So it was a big win for us (Dec. 9), big two points. But, again, it's a new game tomorrow, and we've got to bring what we brought there last time we played them and even more."

Still, if you had to gauge desperation levels, Montreal needs this one more.

Sitting at 18-4-3 at the end of November and perched comfortably atop the Atlantic Division, the Canadiens -- sans Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher -- collapsed in December with only three wins in 15 games (3-9-3), treating their large and passionate fan base to a holiday horror show.

So a victory here after all the build-up? My goodness. It might feel like playoff series win for these guys.

"Yeah, it could change a lot," said Pacioretty, conceding the magnitude of this game. "Everyone's seen our division and how tight it is. Every night we're looking at scores and you can go from first place to out of a playoff spot almost with two points.

"So I think that first and foremost, where we have to concentrate is the two points. They're having a lot of cameras and there's been a lot of buzz about this game. I think if we can pull out a good game tomorrow and get the victory, I think it could be a good jump-start for things to come. We've put together good games, like Gally said. But on a big stage like this, where we know everybody's watching, it's a big stage and it could do a lot for our club. So we have to make sure we come out from the puck drop."

What a bonus for the Habs that Gallagher returns after a month-plus absence with two broken fingers. Skating at the outdoor practice on the top line with Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec, you knew there was no way Gallagher would be denied. He had set the Winter Classic as his target date to return after suffering the injury on Nov. 22. He got the medical clearance a few days ago and the coach's green light New Year's Eve.

Montreal's important super pest, who also happens to be one of the team's most-gifted goal scorers, is back.

"Like I said from the start, I wouldn't come back if I didn't feel like I could help the team," Gallagher said. "I didn't want to come back for selfish reasons. The doctors helped me to come back and play, and now hopefully I can contribute."

The smile on Gallagher's face lit up the room as he described his excitement. The look on Brad Marchand's face a few hours earlier, not so much.

The Bruins not only are trying to survive without injured offensive star David Krejci but also now without Marchand, who was having a fantastic season but whose bone-headed clip of Ottawa's Mark Borowiecki on Tuesday cost him a three-game suspension and robbed him of the chance to play at the home of the New England Patriots.

"I want to apologize and I truly am sorry to everyone for the situation," Marchand said. "It was not my intent to make a hit or try to injure anyone on that play."

For the B's, it's a huge loss, but soldier on they will.

"It's tough for us, it's a big loss for us for sure," Bruins blueliner Torey Krug said. "But we have that next-man up mentality. Which is good."

For Krug, nothing can take away from the opportunity at hand. This is the Winter Classic, it's Habs-Bruins, it's history.

"Not only do you get to play outside on a national stage, but to be able to put our mark and add another chapter to this historical rivalry is going to be a treat for all of us," Krug said. "We're hoping it benefits our side more than it does theirs, but I'm just excited to get out there. A lot of great players have played for both organizations and to have my name part of that is special for me and all these guys."

But let's be clear, it's going to be a lot more special for the winning team Friday.