The 2014 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs will take place New Year's Day in Ann Arbor, Mich. It's not the best matchup in the history of NHL outdoor games, but it has the potential to be the most memorable of all the contests.
The Wings and Leafs will enter the game as playoff teams in the East, as both will be sitting in wild-card spots when the puck is dropped. The 2011 edition between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2009 game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Red Wings featured teams with better records, but this game on Wednesday has plenty going for it.
The Leafs aren't exactly defensive stalwarts and tend to allow a lot of prime scoring chances. They are also a team that enjoys playing a back-and-forth style, which should lend itself to fun hockey against a Red Wings team that is mostly healthy now.
Throw in the fact that the forecast for Wednesday calls for light snow and the game will be played in front of an expected record crowd of about 107,000 at Michigan Stadium, and this could be the best Winter Classic of the bunch.
To get you prepared for the 1 p.m. ET contest, here's a breakdown of both clubs, storylines, players to watch and a prediction.
All statistics via NHL.com.
Despite the fact that the Maple Leafs allow more shots than a negligent bartender, they are thriving in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto allows a league-worst 36.2 shots per game. It's the highest number since the Los Angeles Kings allowed 36.3 shots per game during the 1993-94 season. Not only are the Leafs sieves defensively, but they rank 27th in the league in generating shots, averaging 27.4 per game.
The Leafs have outshot their opponents just six times in 41 games.
How are the Leafs 20-16-5 and sitting in a playoff spot with those numbers? They've been the beneficiaries of timely scoring and outstanding goaltending from both Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. Bernier and Reimer have save percentages of .930 and .924, respectively.
Numbers like that seem to indicate it's only a matter of time before things turn ugly in Toronto, but the Leafs are nestled into a playoff spot at the halfway point of the season.
The Red Wings were ravaged by injuries during the first half of the season. Among their key players to miss extended time are Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Stephen Weiss, Johan Franzen, Jimmy Howard, Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Todd Bertuzzi and Darren Helm.
Everyone except Franzen, Weiss and Ericsson will be back in time for the Winter Classic.
The Red Wings used smoke, mirrors, reaching overtime and Jonas Gustavasson, who is currently out with a groin injury, to stay afloat in the East. They compiled an 18-13-9 mark—the nine OT/shootout losses being the most in the league—which is commendable considering the talent that has been missing most of the season.
Gustavsson began to falter in December, but his 11-3-2 mark is perhaps the biggest reason why the Red Wings aren't sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic Division.
When the Red Wings are healthy, they are one of the best teams in the NHL. They're not at 100 percent for the Winter Classic, but they are in far better shape now than they were a month ago.
1. How will the ice hold up? According to weather.com, the temperature will be around 21 degrees when the puck is dropped at about 1 p.m. ET. Dan Craig, the NHL's senior director of facilities operations and the man in charge of making the ice, said overcast skies and temperatures in the 20s are ideal for an outdoor game. The forecast also calls for a light snow flurry, but nothing sustained. The NHL has dealt with rain, heavy snow and sunshine for its outdoor games in the past, but this is setting up to be the perfect scenario for a Winter Classic.
2. Can Jimmy Howard turn things around? Even before he went down with a groin injury three weeks ago, Howard's play was uneven at best. In his last five starts before the injury, Howard allowed two, four, zero, five and two goals. When he was good, he was very good. When he was bad, he was very bad. He will make his first start back in Nashville on Monday, but the Winter Classic will allow him an opportunity to prove he's back on the biggest possible regular-season stage.
3. Will there be a fight? The Winter Classic has existed since 2008, but the first fight didn't take place until 2010 when Boston's Shawn Thornton and Philadelphia's Daniel Carcillo dropped the gloves at Fenway Park. The second and last fight to occur was in 2011 between Michael Rupp of Pittsburgh and John Erskine of Washington. For this year's edition of the Winter Classic, the Leafs have no shortage of guys willing to scrap—Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren are the team's heavyweights. The Red Wings are almost entirely devoid of fighters, so the chances seem unlikely of a fight this time. We will all have to just watch the hockey game instead.
4. Where will 100,000 people park in Ann Arbor? This seems like a logistical nightmare, but here's a link that has some options for travelers. There will be shuttles running from various destinations, but my friendly suggestion is leave as early as possible to get to the game.
Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs: The Madison, Wis. native is the Leafs' most explosive and dynamic player. He's already at the 20-goal mark this season and will enter the Winter Classic with three goals in his past two games. In seven career games against he Red Wings, Kessel has four goals and four assists. Kessel should be able to use his speed on what is expected to be a fast track.
Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings: The 35-year-old wizard missed nearly three weeks with a concussion, but he has rounded into form since returning. He has two goals and six assists in his nine games since getting back in the lineup. Suitable weather conditions combined with the Leafs' porous defense could allow for Datsyuk to show off his magical stick-handling ability in front of a record crowd.
…Jonathan Bernier delivers a 40-save performance. Coach Randy Carlyle hasn't officially named a starter for the Winter Classic, but it's likely Bernier will get the nod. If that's the case, Bernier will likely be under siege all afternoon and will need to be exceptional to get the win.
The Red Wings put 38 shots on net in their 5-4 shootout win against the Leafs on Dec. 21. The Leafs are allowing an average of 40 shots per game in their past three contests, so Bernier—or James Reimer if he gets the call—will likely be very busy.
…Jimmy Howard isn't terrible. The Leafs have made a living this season by scoring timely goals despite not putting many shots on net. While they rank 27th in shots per game, they rank fifth in shooting percentage.
As long as Howard makes all the saves he should and doesn't allow the bad goal, the Red Wings should be fine. But if he falters, this game is liable to be a shootout that could go either way.
The Red Wings have just five players from their 2009 team that beat the Blackhawks in the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. But coach Mike Babcock has been here before, and that experience coupled with the Leafs' inexperience and ragged defense will guide the Wings to a win.
Jimmy Howard won't be great, but he'll be good enough to get the win. Jonathan Bernier will be hung out to dry one too many times and take the loss.
Pavel Datsyuk will score twice, including the empty-netter in the final minute to seal the victory.