Phil Kessel and the Leafs already edged Detroit in OT this season, but they'll face a tougher test on Jan. 1 at the Big House.
Following a 729-day hiatus, the beloved Winter Classic returns to kick off 2014 on New Year's Day. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings renew the grand tradition of outdoor hockey, and they will clash just above the football turf normally used by the Michigan Wolverines.
The change of scenery could be good for both teams, as each entered Dec. 29 with a 3-5-2 record over the previous 10 games. The Red Wings are still getting used to the Eastern Conference after the league's reshuffling, but they can clearly see the Maple Leafs are right on their heels for playoff seeding at the midway point.
They'll face off at Michigan Stadium, which is nicknamed "The Big House" for a reason; it bulged with a record 115,109 fans for the Wolverines' defeat of Notre Dame on Sept. 7, 2013. It also hosted the "Big Chill at the Big House," which set the attendance record for an ice hockey game when 104,173 people watched Michigan cross sticks with Michigan State on Dec. 11, 2010.
Here's everything you need to know to get set for the long-awaited return of the Winter Classic.
When: Jan. 1, 2014, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Weather: High of 17 degrees, low of 14 degrees and a few snow showers (per The Weather Channel)
Key Players to Watch
Phil Kessel leads Toronto in goals despite a recent cold spell, but defenseman Cody Franson is edging Kessel for most assists because he does serious damage on the power play. Through 38 games, Franson recorded 12 power-play assists, double the total of any other teammate.
The Leafs rank fourth in power-play percentage, but they also rank 27th in penalty-kill percentage, so staying out of the penalty box and solid play on special teams will be key for them.
Detroit edged Toronto in a shootout on Dec. 21, and since then the Red Wings have gotten Henrik Zetterberg back from a herniated disc. The winger's return to the ice on Dec. 28 promptly resulted in a 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers and a goal for the Swede. His presence is crucial to the attack, so getting him back on the ice might snap the Wings out of their recent funk.
The Red Wings also expect to welcome back goaltender Jimmy Howard from a sprained MCL on Dec. 30, according to Ansar Khan of MLive.com.
However, Darren Helm may not be ready to return from his injured left shoulder in time for the Winter Classic. Helm painted a gloomy picture for Khan when asked about his fitness after skating with the team on Dec. 28:
Not to where I wanted it to be at this stage...For the most part going up and down the ice in practice it feels really good. The physical play, I don’t think it can hold up to that yet. Just a couple of times (last week), I felt like I was going to be get pushed over, I braced myself and then I’d kneel over for the next two minutes in pain.
Even without Helm, Detroit is bubbling over the return of Zetterberg, and Howard would be another shot in the arm as the Wings play in front of a packed house filled by mitten-staters.
Home Away from Home
The neutral site would seem to favor Detroit, which is the home team. The Maple Leafs notched 13 of their first 19 wins at Air Canada Centre, while the Red Wings found 12 of their first 18 victories on the road. I might remind you that Detroit set an NHL record less than two years ago by winning 23 consecutive home games, so their struggles this season are surprising.
Could some please explain how the Red Wings have won only 6 of 22 home games...but have won 11 of 17 road games? Can't blame HBO for that!— John Shannon (@JSportsnet) December 24, 2013
Head coach Mike Babcock will need to instill in his players that despite being considered at "home," they are far, far from the unfriendly confines of Joe Louis Arena where they have already lost 10 times on the season.
Both teams have allowed more goals than they've scored, and a win in the Winter Classic would be a nice way to start turning the tide. After a strong start to the season, the Leafs have been shaky to close out the calendar year and they have only one win in regulation since Nov. 19.
Thanks to that wonderful lockout, NHL fans have been deprived of the Winter Classic ever since the New York Rangers defeated the Philadelphia Flyers at Citizens Bank Park way, way back at the start of 2012.
Now that it's finally back, look for a goal from Zetterberg and steadying play from Howard as the Red Wings win it 4-2.