While a routine matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings normally wouldn't move the meter on most days, their clash will be anything but routine on New Year's Day, as the two Original Six teams will meet in the annual Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Aside from the Stanley Cup Final, there is no bigger event on the NHL's schedule, as the league's product will be widely available to the masses on NBC. The visual of an outdoor game is what will draw most viewers in, but there is actually plenty of intrigue to consider within the game itself.
With that in mind, here are the three biggest X-factors to watch as you take in the NHL's sixth Winter Classic while celebrating the New Year.
The Red Wings possess so much offensive talent that it is easy for some players to get lost in the shuffle. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson, John Franzen and a host of others are enjoying productive seasons thus far, but underrated center Darren Helm may be Detroit's greatest key to success in this game—and for the remainder of the season. Helm has been limited to just 16 games due to injury, but he has been dominant when on the ice.
Helm has seven goals and 11 points in limited action, which is somewhat of a departure from what he has done over the course of his career. He has never had more than 32 points in a season, as his game is normally defensively focused. Helm has still excelled in that area, but he has added more offense to his game as well. His return figures to add some spark to Detroit's lineup after missing three weeks with a shoulder ailment, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press.
There have been a lot of impressive aspects regarding Helm's game this season when he has played, but his shooting percentage of better than 25 percent takes the cake. He doesn't have to pepper the goaltender with shots like Alexander Ovechkin to score, and that makes him a dangerous weapon. Add in his game-breaking speed, and Helm is one of the NHL's best players that nobody talks about. That will be on full display in the Winter Classic.
Like the Red Wings, the Maple Leafs have had to play without one of their top offensive contributors for much of the season. One of Toronto's main issues has been a lack of depth at center, but that is starting to change thanks to the return of Tyler Bozak.
The Leafs' top pivot has played in just 17 games due to injury, but he returned to action with a bang on Dec. 29 with three assists against the Carolina Hurricanes, which Bozak discussed in this interview courtesy of the Leafs' Twitter account.
Bozak has been a force for Toronto this season when healthy, as evidenced by his 14 points in 17 games. He has been sorely missed, especially with Nazem Kadri struggling to replicate his strong 2012-13 campaign.
Peter Holland has actually been the Leafs' most productive center in Bozak's absence, but he certainly isn't a top-line guy. Bozak's return allows everyone else to fall in line, though, and that will work wonders for Toronto's offensive depth.
The Maple Leafs have struggled through a season of inconsistency, but Bozak is simply a stabilizing force. It can be argued that he isn't worth the massive contract that he was given this past offseason (five years, $21 million); however, he has put up big numbers when healthy this season. The Leafs need a healthy Bozak moving forward in order to make the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup, and that starts on New Year's Day.
It can be argued that the biggest X-factor to be mindful of in the Winter Classic isn't actually a player.
The majority of regular-season NHL games are played in a controlled environment over the course of the season, which means that the Winter Classic is incredibly unique. In addition to having to deal with the opposition, the Maple Leafs and Red Wings will have to contend with the elements, which is something that most players haven't had to do since they were youngsters playing on a frozen pond.
According to Weather.com, a high of just 17 degrees is expected in Ann Arbor, Mich., at The Big House. If that isn't difficult enough, there is also a 65 percent chance of snow during the game, which could make things quite tricky. The players are well aware of the challenges it presents, particularly Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader, per Larry Lage of the Associated Press, via ESPN.com.
"Cold you can deal with," Abdelkader said. "But if the snow is coming down hard and it's windy, it can be pretty tough."
If it does snow as expected, then it can be argued that the Red Wings have an advantage. They faced the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2009 Winter Classic, and there are still several players on the team currently who were a part of that game. Because of that, they should be able to deal with the elements a bit better than the Leafs.
As difficult as it may be on the players, a bit of snow will certainly add to the viewing experience for those watching at home.
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