Winter Classic 2014: Most Intriguing Stars to Watch in Maple Leafs vs. Red Wings

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Winter Classic 2014: Most Intriguing Stars to Watch in Maple Leafs vs. Red Wings
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There is one game every season that even non-hockey fans make a point of watching. That, of course, is the Winter Classic.

There was no Winter Classic last year due to the lockout-shortened season, but the 2014 version will take place on Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. (7 p.m. ET, NBC).

The game will pit the Detroit Red Wings against the Toronto Maple Leafs in what promises to be an entertaining affair. Both teams have certainly had their ups and downs this season, but they have a great deal of talent that figures to be on full display.

Although the Winter Classic isn't always the highest-quality game due to the outside elements, the atmosphere is always fantastic. Here are three players who will be of particular interest when the NHL rings in the New Year.

Jimmy Howard

One of the biggest factors surrounding the Red Wings' inconsistent season thus far has been the play of goaltender Jimmy Howard.

Although Howard has been one of the league's best goalies in the league over the past couple years, that form has eluded him thus far. Howard's goals-against average of 2.76 and save percentage of .906 are far worse than his usual peripherals, and his record of 6-9-7 is uncharacteristic as well.

In addition, Howard has been compromised by injury this season. He returned to action on Dec. 30 after missing three weeks with a knee injury, per Ansar Khan of, but struggled in allowing five goals to the Nashville Predators.

Despite Howard's issues this season, Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press reports that Howard is likely to be among the three goaltenders named to the United State Olympic roster when the announcement is made at the Winter Classic.

If that is the case, then it is worth paying extra close attention to Howard against the Leafs.

Even if Howard does make the Olympic team, he will almost certainly be the No. 3 goalie behind Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick. That means he won't play unless someone gets injured or plays terribly.

Even so, an argument can be made that goaltenders such as Ben Bishop or Cory Schneider are more deserving of an Olympic spot. If Howard can turn things around on the massive Winter Classic stage, though, he may be able to reverse his fortunes moving forward.

Nazem Kadri

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There is a lot to like about the Maple Leafs this season, particularly the play of American Olympic hopefuls Phil Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk, but there have been some negatives as well. Chief among them may be the regression of forward Nazem Kadri.

It seemed as though Kadri finally realized his immense promise last season with 44 points in 48 games. This season, however, hasn't been nearly as kind, as Kadri is currently on pace to finish with just 48 points and owns a disappointing minus-seven rating.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle isn't thrilled with Kadri's production. According to a tweet from Jonas Siegel of TSN 1050, Carlyle has said that Kadri is in danger of being demoted from his current line:

In what would be an even more drastic move, though, the Leafs are reportedly interested in trading Kadri if they can find a logical partner, per Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet:

That would have been nearly unimaginable a year ago, but now it is a very real possibility. Kadri has all the talent in the world, but he simply hasn't shown the consistency and compete level that the Leafs need in order to become a contender Perhaps playing in the Winter Classic will inspire him to reach down deep, but if it doesn't, then his days as a Leaf may be numbered.

Daniel Alfredsson

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Much of the offensive focus when it comes to the Red Wings is on the combination of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. That is certainly understandable since they have anchored the team for so many years, but they have gotten a great deal of help from an unlikely source this season.

Many were shocked when Detroit poached veteran forward Daniel Alfredsson from the Ottawa Senators, but his amazing production may be even more surprising.

Despite the fact that he is 41 years old, Alfie once again appears to be in his prime. The Swedish star has 29 points in 35 games and has provided the Red Wings with some much-needed secondary scoring. Health is always a concern when it comes to older players, and while Alfredsson has missed a handful of games this season due to injury—including the Dec. 30 game against Nashville, he is expected to play in the Winter Classic, according to a tweet by St. James:

Having Alfredsson in the fold is of the utmost importance for Detroit moving forward, and that will be true in the Winter Classic as well. Alfredsson has pretty much done it all in the NHL, but this will be the first Winter Classic of his storied career, so he is likely to be even more energized than he has been this season. Alfredsson made life miserable for Leafs fans for many years while with the Sens, and he may continue that tradition on Jan. 1.

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