Winter Classic 2014: Breaking Down Potential Breakout Performers

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Winter Classic 2014: Breaking Down Potential Breakout Performers
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The Winter Classic is the NHL's marquee event, bringing the league incredible exposure on a day when everyone is home and watching TV.

This is the moment for the NHL to really market itself to the nation. It's also a moment for some of the players beloved by diehard puckheads to make their names known nationally. 

This year's matchup will feature two Original Six rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings, playing at The Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Take a look at how the ice is going to look:

It's a pretty special event, hearkening back to the roots of hockey in backyard ponds on a cold winter's day.

Which players are going to use this grand stage to break out? Below are a few candidates.

 

Jonas Gustavsson, G, Detroit

Graig Abel/Getty Images

Jimmy Howard is still injured and not a lock to play in this game. He told Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press that he's aiming for a game against the Nashville Predators on December 30th and "then hopefully taking off from there."

Because he's not a lock, there's a good chance that Jonas Gustavsson will start. He's been terrific in relief of Howard, posting a 10-3-2 record with a 2.35 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.

He also made this remarkable save:

That's about as good a save as you'll ever see.

Gustavsson has never been able to hold down a starting job, but he's making a big push against Howard. Howard, who was brilliant last year, has struggled a bit this season with a 6-8-7 record, 2.66 GAA and .910 save percentage.

This is a chance for "The Monster" to put on a show and give Mike Babcock a tough decision. Right now, Gustavsson is the best goalie on the Wings' roster and is going to prove it at The Big House.

 

Peter Holland, C, Toronto

Graig Abel/Getty Images

Peter Holland was once a first-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks, but was never able to entrench himself with the team and was shipped off in November to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Perhaps a change of scenery was all that was needed, since Holland has been great for the Leafs. In 17 games, Holland has scored four goals and added four assists, playing in all situations and showing the speed and skill that made him the 15th overall pick in 2009.

Randy Carlyle, who briefly coached Holland in Anaheim, praised the pivot's skills when speaking with James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail:

Big guy that played lot of hockey in Guelph. Would be known for his offensive size. Probably has developed into more of a combative individual and that’s allowed him to take the next step as far as being a damn good American League player. And now he’s looking to take the next step to being an NHL player.

Now, Holland will get a chance to shine on the biggest stage. He's meshed well with Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond, two speedy wingers, and gives the Leafs size and speed down the middle.

You can see his full skill set on display with this goal against Nashville:

It would not be surprising to see Holland net a few points and introduce himself on the bigger stage.

 

Justin Abdelkader, LW, Detroit

Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Justin Abdelkader may be the fastest player in hockey.

While injuries have been a problem over his entire career, his speed and forechecking ability make him an incredibly important member of the Wings. According to Chuck Pleiness of The Macomb Daily, he's nearing a return from a concussion, perhaps set to play as soon as Saturday night.

Pavel Datsyuk, perhaps the most complete player in the world, gushed over Abdelkader, telling Bill Roose of DetroitRedWings.com:

He goes through and gets the puck to me or goes back in front of the net and fights for every puck. Some people only measure him if he scores. But if you see him … he does a lot of hard jobs. 

It’s like somebody needs to pull the piano and somebody needs to play the piano. This is a guy who pulls the piano.

Abdelkader is the type of winger teams need to win. He provides pure speed, relentless forechecking and incredible energy. That skill set gives him an outside chance to make the U.S. Olympic team.

You can see how that effort and hustle can lead to goals on a play like this:

He will be flying all over the ice at Michigan Stadium. The Muskegon, Michigan—about three hours from Ann Arbor—native should be fired up playing near his home.

You'll see that energy come through on the ice. He's going to have a big game and catapult himself into the national conversation. 

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