Thoughts on the 2019 Winter Classic

As the Boston Bruins celebrated a thrilling 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks at the 2019 Winter Classic in front of the nearly 80,000 fans in attendance at Notre Dame Stadium on New Year’s Day, a curious thought crossed my mind. Should this exact moment have been delivered, under an even brighter spotlight, six years earlier?

Let’s venture back to Jan. 1, 2013, when instead of watching the intended Winter Classic matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium, hockey fans wondered if they would lose a second full season in a nine-year span. This was answered with a sigh of relief five days later, when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was agreed upon, saving the season but not the Winter Classic.

Five short months later, the Blackhawks paraded Lord Stanley’s Cup around the TD Garden ice, having just defeated the Bruins in one of the most outstanding Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory. Now, just for a second, imagine these two franchises, with Stanley Cup and dynastic aspirations alike, squaring off midway through memorable 2012-13 seasons, not knowing they were destined to meet again on the grandest stage.

Don’t get me wrong, the 2019 Winter Classic was well worth the wait, given the Bruins’ performance in the debacle at Gillette Stadium in their previous appearance. Any time this Original Six rivalry is reignited, it deserves a national audience. This season’s marquee regular-season game provided just that, even while lacking any real animosity, but more on that later. Despite the two organizations headed in opposite directions, the Bruins toward the playoffs and the Blackhawks the draft lottery, this was a major victory for the National Hockey League.

Boston Bruins David Pastrnak NHL Winter Classic
The Bruins’ David Pastrnak celebrates after scoring his goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first period of the NHL Winter Classic (Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo)

Which Original Six Rivalry Deserved the Spotlight?

This is opinionated of course, but it would have made all the sense in the world to have two legit contenders chasing their second Cups since the 2009-10 (Blackhawks) and 2010-11 (Bruins) seasons, respectively, playing in the 2013 Winter Classic. The argument could be made that the league needed to incorporate some new blood into the event as Toronto became the first Canadian franchise to compete.

However, having the Pittsburgh Penguins (2008 and 2011) and Philadelphia Flyers (2010 and 2012), who combined to reach three Stanley Cup Finals since the Winter Classic’s inception, receive two invitations proved that a team’s elite status mattered as much.While the Maple Leafs surprised in the shortened season, and returned to the playoffs along the way, and the Red Wings were as solid as ever, the Bruins and Blackhawks combined for 139 points with the latter winning the Presidents Trophy.

Coincidentally, the Bruins ended the Maple Leafs’ season in the first round of the playoffs while the Blackhawks disposed of the Red Wings in the conference semifinals. With deeper and more talented lineups, a handful of detestable individuals (depending on your allegiance) and an elite goaltending matchup to boot, this fantasy matchup had all the makings of, for lack of a better term, a classic. Here’s how that game might have played out.

Storylines from a Stanley Cup Preview

One of the better battles this year was the goaltender’s duel between Tuukka Rask and Cam Ward. While the Bruins are hoping Rask’s 36-save performance is the start of a strong second half, given his tumultuous start to the season, 2013 was the opposite. The Finnish netminder had a ridiculous 2.00 goals-against average (GAA), .929 save percentage (SV%) and five shutouts.

Corey Crawford would have likely opposed Rask, assuming he was healthy enough to play as he missed this year’s game with lingering concussion symptoms. Crawford equaled Rask’s 2013 win total of 19 in six fewer games played and posted a 1.94 GAA and .926 SV% along the way.

Tuukka Rask Boston Bruins
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask makes a save on the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane in Game 3 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. (Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports)

In front of Rask, the Bruins would have rolled out many of the same names that helped bring the Cup home in 2011. While several of those core pieces, including Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, are still around today, the likes of Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and Tyler Seguin would have been a bigger draw than the team’s current youth-laden lineup.

Similarly, for the Blackhawks, the likes of Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp would have eased the weight on the shoulders of the team’s stalwarts. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook seem all but certain to miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

As it was in the Cup Final, a big storyline would have centered on the potential, and all but certain, exchange of pleasantries between notorious super pests Brad Marchand and Andrew Shaw. Surprisingly, the former was quiet up until his empty-net goal (and post-game snow angel) secured the Bruins’ victory on Tuesday afternoon. One could attribute this to a lack of hostility aimed at him, or dare I suggest, growth in maturity. With Shaw on the ice, it’s a safe bet that the Bruins’ Little Ball of Hate would have been in the rarest of forms.

Brad Marchand Bruins
The Bruins’ Brad Marchand is escorted to the penalty box. (Eric Bolte/USA TODAY Sports)

And the Winner Is…

Your guess is as good as mine really. If their epic showdown in the Stanley Cup Final was an indication, I can only assume the hockey universe missed out on something incredibly special. Six long years later, we received a generous consolation prize…but imagine what could have been.