ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Halfway through his first season after signing a five-year, $21 million contract extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer, center Tyler Bozak was already encountering adversity.
Entering the final game of 2013, Bozak had already missed 24 games with injuries, including four weeks in December with an oblique strain. He returned to Toronto's lineup Sunday and registered three assists to lead the Maple Leafs to a 5-2 win against the Carolina Hurricanes. He also brought his signature versatility, winning faceoffs, killing penalties and playing on the power play.
But Wednesday afternoon at Michigan Stadium in front of the biggest crowd in NHL history, Bozak assumed a new role: Winter Classic hero.
"It was awesome. I didn't really know what to expect," Bozak said after scoring a go-ahead goal in regulation and the shootout winner in Toronto's 3-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. "It was pretty cool to see the amount of both teams' fans. It was a special moment."
Before suiting up for the Winter Classic, Bozak was limited to six games in November and December, during which the Maple Leafs posted a 10-12-5 record. But since returning against Carolina, he has provided a spark for the Maple Leafs, who have now won three straight games.
That spark was especially evident at the Big House.
"Tyler is a player that our coaching staff trusts. When coaches trust people, they put them in situations where you believe the player will get the job done," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. "If we had a model for younger players to follow, it would be Tyler Bozak. He's got hockey sense, the puck follows him around."
For a moment, it appeared as if Bozak's third-period goal would be the game-winner. But Justin Abdelkader scored the equalizer with 5:32 remaining in regulation to set the stage for Bozak's shootout winner.
A signature moment in Bozak's career, the shootout goal ended a magical day for all parties involved. It was an overwhelming spectacle for the Maple Leafs forward, especially considering how quickly he returned to form.
"I was able to play one game before [the Winter Classic]. That was huge for me. It definitely would have been crazy to just come right back into this game," Bozak said. "Being able to play in the one before really helped me a lot. It was pretty fun, though. Everyone had a good time. We're going to remember this one forever."
With his goal Wednesday, Bozak now has nine points over a six-game personal point streak. Granted, those six games have been spaced out over six weeks, but it's clear that Toronto's top center is providing a big push at a very opportune time.
"It's a boost anytime you get guys back off injured reserve," Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf said. "He did a great job coming back into the lineup and making us a better team."