What'll be this year's Classic statement?
BOSTON -- When the Philadelphia Flyers-Boston Bruins matchup was first announced for the third installment of the NHL's Winter Classic, there was reason to believe the two teams might meet Jan. 1 as contenders for the Eastern Conference lead.
A classic indeed, except it hasn't exactly worked out that way. The preseason script has had more than a few twists and turns on both sides of the ledger.
Still, the meandering path both teams have followed to Friday's game has done little to lessen the drama, but rather provided a starkly different backdrop than might have otherwise been the case.
The Flyers fired coach John Stevens on Dec. 4 and then struggled to integrate new coach Peter Laviolette's up-tempo system, winning just twice in their first 10 games after the coaching change.
Slowly but surely, though, the Flyers have adapted to Laviolette's style of constant motion and enter the Classic contest riding a four-game winning streak that has put them back into the East playoff bracket.
"I think when you're a professional hockey player, confidence is such a big thing," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said Thursday after Philly and Boston enjoyed practice time at Fenway Park. "When did that turn for us, I'm not exactly sure. Our last home game [a 4-1 loss to Florida], even our good players couldn't make a five-foot pass. It was that bad.
"We were able to refocus, and the guys did a good job refocusing out on the road, and we got a bit of the confidence back that we need to at least compete."
Laviolette employs a system that requires almost constant motion from his players, and Simon Gagne, who just returned to the lineup from injury, said players talked about how tired they were after the first games under their new coach.
"Now we get it, but it took us a while to learn," Gagne said.
The Flyers' recent win streak included a 6-0 rout of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, a win that has made the team's arrival in Boston for this much-anticipated event much more festive.
"Winning the game last night and coming here for practice is definitely more fun," said Gagne, who netted a hat trick against the Rangers. "It's a lot easier to enjoy yourself on the ice, and before practice, guys had a lot of fun today. If you look at our team two weeks ago, it was a totally different scenario."
One of the issues that has dogged the Flyers has been questions about the team's leadership and commitment to winning. But Holmgren praised young captain Mike Richards for working through a difficult stretch.
"I think this year has been very trying for Mike, as well as a lot of his teammates, and we think Mike has really come through with flying colors," Holmgren said. "I think he's continued to play well. He's continued to try his hardest on the ice. That's the one thing we know about Mike -- every time he puts his leg over the boards, you know the effort that you're going to get."
Watching the Flyers as they flung snowballs at each other on the ice and hurried back to skate with their children and brothers and parents Thursday, the team seems to have found at least some of the mojo that saw it sit near the top of the Atlantic Division earlier in the season.
The Bruins are likewise coming off a shutout (a 4-0 win over Atlanta on Wednesday night), but like the Flyers have fallen short of lofty expectations through the first half of the season.
The Bruins led the Eastern Conference pretty much from wire to wire last season and were dominant both offensively and defensively. This season, they got off to a rocky start, defending Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas was inconsistent, and injuries and the departure of Phil Kessel took their toll offensively.
Although the Bruins were in fifth place in the conference, five points behind Northeast Division-leading Buffalo before action Thursday, they are tied for 24th in the NHL in goals scored per game.
"Well, I think we are better than we were at the start of the season, there's no doubt there," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "Are we where we want to be? I don't think so, because we demand a lot more of ourselves.
"The biggest thing probably is, right now, can we get more consistency in our game, that every night you will know what you are going to get out of your hockey club."
The Bruins have won four of five and will step onto the ice at Fenway Park feeling much like the Flyers, that they've turned some sort of corner.
"I think it's totally up to us. It's just the way we play," Marco Sturm said. "If we're ready to play, we're really hard to play against and hard to beat. And if we're not, we're just an average team."
So the Winter Classic looms as a stepping-off point to the second half of the season for both these teams. As it should be, perhaps.
A year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks viewed the Winter Classic game against the Detroit Red Wings as a statement game, a game against a traditional rival on a grand stage in the midst of a stunning renaissance for the franchise. In some ways it did turn out to be a harbinger of things to come, as the Blackhawks lost to Detroit on Jan. 1 before falling to the Wings in five games in the Western Conference finals, proving that they were still not quite where they wanted to be.
In 2008, the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins were both looking for traction when they met in the first Winter Classic in Buffalo. The Penguins won in a shootout and went on to enjoy a scorching second half of the season and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals against Detroit. The Sabres never got their footing and missed the playoffs entirely.
Friday's game is just that, one game. Yet for two teams that have failed to meet offseason expectations and have had to question their own character and commitment, it may become a pivotal moment in their respective seasons, regardless of where they end up when the ice chips settle in mid-April.
"I don't think there's going to be any holdbacks," Boston captain Zdeno Chara said of Friday's game. "I think it's going to be totally the opposite. It will be more like a playoff game. For sure it's going to be pretty intense."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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