ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Justin Abdelkader knows a thing or two about scoring big goals.
As a 20-year-old at Michigan State University, Abdelkader helped his school win a national championship when he scored the game-winning goal with 18.9 seconds remaining in the title game against Boston College.
Abdelkader's goal Wednesday at the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic didn't win his Detroit Red Wings a championship, or even the game. But it did erase a 2-1 deficit with 5:32 remaining in regulation and helped Detroit earn a point in standings in its 3-2 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in front of more than 100,000 fans at Michigan Stadium.
"That goes up there … one of my bigger goals," Abdelkader said. "One to remember, for sure. It's unfortunate that it didn't come in a win, but it was definitely a memorable goal. Playing in the state of Michigan and playing the rivalry with Michigan and Michigan State, it was great to play here in The Big House. It was a lot of fun. I'm glad I got the opportunity."
Abdelkader, who doesn't shy away from physical play, was able to tie the game for Detroit by powering his way to the net. Maple Leafs defenseman Paul Ranger sent the puck around the boards, where Brendan Smith was able to seize control in front of Toronto's James van Riemsdyk. Smith quickly sent the puck to the front of the net, where Abdelkader quickly backhanded it past Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier. It was his fifth goal of the season, and arguably the biggest.
"The puck kind of got wrapped around and Smitty got on the wall, and I was just trying to fight for position in front of the net," Abdelkader said. "We talked about getting pucks to the net and making simple plays. With the snow on the ice, it wasn't easy. I knew he was going to try and get it to the front there, and I was just trying to get position and get my stick on it."
Abdelkader's goal helped send the game past regulation, which gave the Red Wings a much needed point in the standings. They were unable to secure a second point, which Abdelkader admitted made the afternoon a tad bittersweet. But he's glad the fans were treated to a tight game and dramatic finish.
"Obviously if we had won, it would be more special," Abdelkader said of his goal. "It comes down to the shootout, and it's kind of a skills competition. I guess for this game to come down to a shootout, it was fitting it comes down that way. Both teams battled. There was a lot of snow on the ice, there weren't a lot of easy plays being made. You don't want it to come down to a bad, fluky goal or something from the red line or some kind of weird play. It was fun. I think the fans enjoyed it. It's unfortunate we didn't come out with the win in the shootout. But overall, I think everyone enjoyed the experience."
The power forward reached double digits in goals for the first time last season, when he had 10 goals in 48 games for the Red Wings, his fourth season in the NHL. With five goals in 37 games, Abdelkader is on track to accomplish the feat again.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock believes the best is yet to come.
"Abby is going to have lots of big moments," Babcock said. "He's a good player, plays hard. He's an every-dayer. He brings it every day to practice, to games. He's just going to get better. He's got a reasonable skill set, but his determination is so good his skill set is going to grow and he'll be a real important part for our team. We don't have a lot of big, heavy forwards and he's one for us. He's growing into his body and he's growing into his game. He's an important player for us."
And on Wednesday, he scored an important goal and created a moment he won't soon forget.
"I'm just really fortunate and blessed to be here today," Abdelkader said.