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Babcock: Winter Classic will be moment to remember

by Dan Rosen

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The storyline about players becoming giddy when they first arrive at the site of the Winter Classic is not a cliché. It's real.

The proof could be found in both dressing rooms and on the ice Tuesday at Michigan Stadium.

"You can tell as soon as everyone walked in here, it was like a bunch of 13- and 14-year-olds in here," Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said after practicing at Michigan Stadium. "We were all excited and messing around with our new stuff, the eye black, the hats and everything. Everyone is pretty fired up."

The buildup for the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs will finally end shortly after 1 p.m. ET on Wednesday (NBC, CBC, RDS) when the puck is dropped at The Big House.

More than 105,000 are expected to file into the stadium to set a record for attendance at a hockey game.

Howard will be in the Red Wings' net playing opposite Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier, who will be starting in his fourth straight game for the first time in his NHL career.

Two teams, each with 45 points through 41 games, will be battling for an important two points in an atmosphere which should be as raucous as it is frigid. The expected temperature should be somewhere in the mid-teens with overcast skies, some wind and snow flurries possible at the start of the game.

There will be kids skating on an auxiliary rink, award-winning musical artists performing the national anthems, and a military flyover.

This Winter Classic, the NHL's sixth edition of the outdoor extravaganza, a tradition started in a Buffalo blizzard in 2008, might just have it all.

"You don't remember everything in life, but you remember moments," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "This should be one."

The event Wednesday can be more than just an unforgettable moment for the players and coaches. It can be a game that springboards one of these teams to better days ahead, because right now the Red Wings and Maple Leafs are teams stuck in neutral through December and have had their warts exposed in HBO's "24/7" series.

"There's no better way than to get outside in an event like this, play a good game, use it and build off of that," Toronto forward James van Riemsdyk said. "There's a lot that goes into it and it is a big event, but you enjoy it more if you win the game."

Detroit won four of 13 games in December (4-7-2) and is coming off a 6-4 loss to the Nashville Predators on Monday. Toronto won six of 14 games in December (6-6-2), but at least comes into the Winter Classic having won back-to-back games and owning a 3-0-2 record in its past five.

The Red Wings are in fourth place in the Atlantic Division only because they have three more regulation/overtime wins than the fifth-place Maple Leafs.

"We've just been inconsistent, but I think it can be a game where it can hopefully bring us together," Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader said. "You have to go out and enjoy it, but obviously it is a big game for us, a division game and both us and Toronto are fighting for our playoff lives. That's what you want. You want a meaningful game, and hopefully this can be a turn in the right direction for us."

They will, of course, have to deal with a whole set of elements which are never a concern when they play inside.

Will the expected snow bother the goalies?

"What's the forecast for [Wednesday]? Three to five inches?" Howard said. "I guess we'll see."

Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul said the best game plan will be to shoot the puck as much as possible.

"It's safe to say a good plan would be getting a lot of pucks on the net because this is certainly a different environment for the goalies," Lupul said. "You never know how they're going to react with snow, sun, all those different things."

How will the wind affect the players when they are skating into it?

"The wind certainly plays a factor," Lupul said. "You could tell when you were skating into it."

What about the cold?

"Not concerned one bit," Babcock said. "I thought the snow was great [Tuesday]. It adds to the atmosphere. It adds to the memory. It is going to be the same for both teams.

"We're going to play and we're going to play hard and try to find a way to win. I'm sure they're going about it the same way."

The ice is also different. It's made on top of aluminum pans, not cement.

"It feels different than the buildings we play in typically, but it was good," Lupul said. "It was fast and the puck slid well. You could shoot. Everything was good as far as that goes."

In the end, it just comes down to who handles the elements better, and even more to the point, which team plays better.

The event is massive. The atmosphere inside Michigan Stadium could be like nothing ever experienced at a NHL game before. The players do feel like kids again, skating in the freedom of the outdoors.

But putting all of that aside and focusing on the two points at hand might be the difference in one of these two teams righting their season early in 2014.

"It's a huge game," Red Wings forward Dan Cleary said. "We understand it's a divisional opponent. We know where we sit. We know where Toronto sits. We know where we need to be, but we need to get going. We've been kind of very sporadic.

"I mean, we all understand this is a big event in terms of the fans and Winter Classic, but you have to go out and play well on the ice to make everything worthwhile."


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