MAPLE LEAFS (20-16-5) at RED WINGS (18-14-9)
TV: NBC, CBC, RDS
Last 10: Toronto 4-4-2; Detroit 3-5-2
Season series: This is the second game between these Original Six and Eastern Conference rivals. The Detroit Red Wings beat the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 21 in a wild 5-4 game decided in the shootout. Daniel Alfredsson scored the deciding goal in the tiebreaker as the Red Wings rallied from a 4-3 deficit to gain two valuable road points.
Big story: Each team is scuffling and desperate for points in the first game of the new year. Each has 45 points and sits in a tie for fourth place in the Atlantic Division as they pass the midway point of the season.
So, despite all the pomp and circumstance that will accompany the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, this game is most importantly about the standings points in play, a topic referenced over and over by the coaching staff of each team.
Yet there is no denying the game will be a spectacle of epic proportions, featuring a potential record-setting crowd, near-perfect conditions (temperatures expected in the teens with light snow), and bold-faced entertainment offerings all presented in front of national TV audiences in the United States and Canada. That is a point Detroit coach Mike Babcock stressed to his players after practice at Michigan Stadium on Tuesday.
"You don't remember everything in life, but you remember moments," Babcock said. "This should be one of those moments you remember."
Maple Leafs: Toronto comes to the Winter Classic off a 5-2 home win against the Carolina Hurricanes that featured a lot of good things for the team. Leading scorer Phil Kessel had two goals, giving him 20 for the season. Jonathan Bernier, who will make his fourth straight start Wednesday, stopped 41 of 43 shots for his 12th victory of the season. Tyler Bozak had three assists.
There were, however, some worrying signs. The Maple Leafs struggled with possession for long periods of time and allowed at least 40 shots for the 11th time this season. They also committed 15 giveaways.
Wednesday will mark the first game defenseman Dion Phaneuf, the Maple Leafs captain, will play after signing a seven-year contract Tuesday.
He said the fact the game is the Winter Classic makes it all the more special.
"Just when I drove up to the building I got chills," Phaneuf said. "You grow up playing on outdoor rinks as a kid and to be able to come here and obviously with this news being announced, to have my family here … it's going to be a special game to be a part of. I'm looking forward to stepping out there not only [Tuesday] to practice, but [Wednesday] when there are 110,000 people. It's going to be an experience I'll never forget as a player."
Red Wings: Detroit is trying to wash away the bitter taste of a 6-4 road loss to the Nashville Predators on Monday night. Goalie Jimmy Howard, playing for the first time since sustaining an injury Dec. 10, allowed goals on two of the first five shots he faced and made 23 saves on 28 shots. Howard said he never felt comfortable and is hoping to find his groove Wednesday afternoon.
"The great thing about [Howard], he's a world-class goalie," Babcock said. "He's always been good. He usually bounces back [well].
"We couldn't score enough [Monday] night. That's just the way the game is sometimes. But I've been around a lot of good players over the years, and they normally bounce back. Here's a great opportunity for him. I wasn't telling him no matter what happened last night, he was in there. I thought our team really battled for him. I thought our team tried to get them out of the situation they were in. We didn't have enough in the end to get it done. He gets a new opportunity [Wednesday], and that's a great thing about life is you get up there every day and it can change your attitude."
Center Darren Helm returned to the lineup Monday after an injury layoff, but the Red Wings may have lost Alfredsson, who did not play Monday after suffering back spasms in the warm-up. Alfredsson skated during the practice session at the University of Michigan on Tuesday, but his status for the game remains up in the air.
Who's hot: Kessel has three goals and an assist in his past two games for the Maple Leafs. Bozak has eight points in his past five games. … Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk has five assists and seven points in his past five games. Defenseman Niklas Kronwall has six assists in his past five games.
Injury report: Toronto center Trevor Smith (hand) and center Dave Bolland (hand) are out. … Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (broken ribs) is out. Right wing Johan Franzen (concussion) is not symptom-free and has been ruled out. Center Stephen Weiss (groin) is sidelined.