The Winter Classic is an annual “can’t miss” venture for the NHL, one of its biggest productions every year. And it’s been two years since we last saw the game because the 2021 date was postponed until New Year’s Day 2022. The originally scheduled participants — the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues — remained the same, as did the venue: Target Field in Minneapolis. The only thing that changed from year to year was about a thirty-degree temperature drop from what would have been the conditions in 2021. But even despite the frigid conditions, the Blues and Wild put on a show.
Though the Winter Classic does take the place of a regular-season game on the schedule, and the Blues solidified their hold on first place in the Central Division with the victory (while the Wild dropped to third), these games never seem to be about the stakes too much. They are a celebration of hockey in its purest form: outdoors, in the elements, the same way these largely multimillionaire athletes played when they were kids still learning to skate. Saturday’s 6-4 affair matched the highest-scoring contest in Winter Classic history (the Detroit Red Wings also defeated the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field in 2009 by a score of 6-4) and left us with plenty to talk about. Here’s a look at three of the biggest takeaways.
Mid-Market Teams Can Put on a Show
For understandable reasons, the NHL has tended to want a big market and/or Original Six team in the annual NHL Winter Classic. It is one of the league’s biggest opportunities to draw a huge TV audience for their product, and the impact of these events in the local community is unmatched. So the decision to give the opportunity to the Wild and Blues took some guts from the NHL’s front office. The Blues had already proven they could rise to the occasion, hosting the 2017 Winter Classic at Busch Stadium. But this would be Minnesota’s first opportunity to participate in the game, and they did not disappoint.
Despite temperature at punk drop sinking to minus-8 degrees (Fahrenheit), the coldest temperature ever for an NHL outdoor game, Target Field proved to be a fantastic environment for the Winter Classic. The official attendance of 38,519 registers on the low end for these contests, but the venue was full of frigid hockey fans, and they got to witness quite a game. Beyond that, the environment — from the fan fest before the game, to the eight outdoor rinks filled with local hockey players in the outfield, to the announcement of the U.S. Women’s Olympic team during the second intermission — proved that you don’t need an Original Six team to put on a big show in the NHL. Whether that’s a lesson the league will commit to memory remains to be seen.
Tarasenko is the Soul of the Blues
Vladimir Tarasenko was one of just three players to play at both Blues’ Winter Classics, and the only player to score at both, with his second-period one-timer goal. He posed for an iconic and gleeful selfie with fans after each outdoor victory. And it only served as a reminder of his significance to this generation of the franchise and its fans.
Unfortunately, before the season, controversy erupted when news broke that Tarasenko wanted a trade away from the Blues. He reportedly lost faith in team management after they, in his opinion, bungled a series of shoulder operations and took critical games off his career. The latest reports suggest that his desires haven’t changed. But if he does want out, he’s doing everything right along the way. He’s had a resurgent season, with 14 goals and 19 assists in a point per game output. He’s looked happy and professional on the ice and in interviews. With just one more season left on his current contract, and no indication that he’s changed his mind, it still seems that Tarasenko’s days in St. Louis are numbered. But even if he leaves, he will remain an iconic piece of the Blues’ history, and perhaps the best player of his generation.
Kyrou is a Superstar
The Blues have found a special player in Jordan Kyrou. General manager Doug Armstrong pulled off a masterstroke when he traded Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames for a second-round pick, then used that second-round pick in the 2016 Draft to take Kyrou 35th overall. On New Year’s Day, any doubt that remained about that selection was clearly erased, when Kyrou set an outdoor game point record with four — and only needed one period to do it.
He dazzled with his speed and agility. He impressed both with his tape-to-tape passing and his pinpoint wrist shot. He was the best player on the ice for most of the game, even with Kirill Kaprizov on the opposite side. Over the past several seasons, he’s developed from a second-round draftee to a top prospect, to a strong AHL performer to a fledgling NHL regular, and increasingly now into an NHL star. But Saturday was Kyrou’s arrival on the national scene. He’s not just “a nice get for a second-round pick,” he’s a bonafide stud in the NHL, and his stock is only going to continue to rise.
The Central is Heating Up
As already mentioned, the Winter Classic never really feels like it’s about the stakes. But there certainly were some in this game. With the win, the Blues move to 43 points, atop the Central Division. The loss kept the Wild at 40 points and allowed the Nashville Predators, one of the two teams to participate in the last Winter Classic in 2019, to move up to second with 42 points. The Colorado Avalanche, who entered the season as a favorite of many, remain a ways behind in fourth, with 36 points. The Blues and Wild will meet two more times this season, both in St. Louis inside the Enterprise Center. But with their win at Target Field on New Year’s Day, the Blues established themselves as the pace car of the Central Division.
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Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.