Usually, HBO’s 24/7 beats the actual Winter Classic in fanfare and expectation. This year, it has simply been a welcomed preview. The Big House in Ann Arbour, Michigan gathered a record number of bodies (105,491 people), vastly exceeding 71,217 humans attending the first Winter Classic in 2008. After a tough 5-4 SO loss against the Wings on December 21st, the Leafs were due for a victory. Paul Ranger had the right idea, wearing the eye-paint of the tiger and looking very much up for a game which brought him and all those in attendance to the core of their love of hockey. We’ve all been waiting for this a long time, so let’s see how this one panned out.
1) The Leafs are 21-16-5 and this was a proper celebration of the game. Also, in the midst of the Classic it was confirmed that JM Liles and Dennis Robertson were traded to Carolina for a dependable shutdown defenseman Tim Gleason. Don’t expect miracles, but the defensive end of things should be somewhat bolstered by his presence. Now, let’s get to the on-ice happenings. Considering the standings, this was an important game for both teams.
2) The conditions certainly played a major part right from the start, and showering the goaltenders wasn’t really frowned upon as much with all the snow. Frequent breaks for ice cleanup offered a chance for some additional strategizing on the benches. Dump and chase was the name of the game as goalies weren’t advised to take field trips behind their net (Bernier didn’t seem to have any trouble in doing so, though). Also, the surface made it difficult for players like Datsyuk to take full advantage of their puck-handling skills offensively but a lot of it played into Detroit’s hands with the kind of ‘meat and potatoes’ style of play they employ which was obvious by the shot count after the opening frame. The first powerplay of the game came after Abdelkader crosschecked Phaneuf from behind in the corner and the Californian made ice/snow removers were once again called into action. A fresh sheet of ice didn’t help the Leafs who couldn’t really put anything dangerous on Jimmy Howard.
3) Like Healy noticed (or heard on 24/7) all Detroit defenseman are left handed shooters which made it difficult for their defense to handle the puck on their off-side, especially in conditions like these. Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t take advantage of that throughout the opening period. The Wings got their first man advantage during the middle of the opening frame when Lupul took a revenge on Kindl’s hit by crosschecking Eaves into the head. Bernier had to be really sharp since the Wings’ powerplay didn’t look as lethargic – still, no goals were scored as Dan Cleary looked to the sky following another good save by the Leafs netminder. The period ended with some grit shown by the Leafs and another good penalty kill following an unfortunate penalty call on Dion.
4) The water bottles were a tougher opponent for the likes of Todd Bertuzzi today. The things were frozen solid and required frequent replacements to keep the goaltenders hydrated. As the second period played out, Nazem Kadri got absolutely robbed by Howard on the best opportunity of the game created by Joffrey Lupul. The kid was slamming his stick on the bench for missing that one. We also found out that the elements were no match for the greatness of Pavel Datsyuk who was still doing his thing in the second.
5) The middle frame saw both teams pushing the pace, but the majority of puck possession and chances still belonged to the Red Wings. Half way into it, Dan Cleary couldn’t put the biscuit past a sprawling Jonathan Bernier who got a slight piece of it and continued with his solid performance in this one. Tatar’s rush just prior to that wasn’t something to sneeze at either. The Leafs were spending too much time in their own zone and the Wings almost made them pay. The shot count stood 19-10 in favor of the red team 12 minutes into the 2nd.
6) Wings got a break on a lucky bounce of the boards which put Zetterberg and Alfredsson on a two-on-one break as Franson got caught up ice. Surely enough, that got them first goal of the hockey game. This was followed by another Leafs penalty, Jay McClement sat in the box as Leafs Nation held their breath. A two goal lead with one period to play, in a game like this – yeah, you’re basically done. Fortunately, the PK did it’s job, thanks mostly to some stellar saves by Bernier. First he stole one from Cleary and followed that up with a 10-bell save on Detroit’s top powerplay unit. Some end to end stuff saw Howard do the same on JVR after his big hit, resulting in a Leafs man advantage. It was surely too late, but the US-born goalie was making his final bid for a roster spot at the Sochi Olympics, stopping the Buds time after time. Be that as it may, our own American wouldn’t be denied. JVR tied the game just 37 second from the buzzer by batting a puck out of the air and scoring past Howard who was seemingly unbeatable down low. Phil Kessel (12:43) and van Riemsdyk (12:34) were leading all forwards in ice time after 2.
7) The tying goal set everyone up for a terrific third period. Dion Phaneuf’s bloody lip gave him an some added nastiness, which seemed to be squarely aimed at Daniel Alfredsson. He was pinching and frequently finishing checks, the best of which coming against the Swede in the offensive zone where he got the puck and the man.
8) Our captain also celebrated his new contract with a huge assist from the point. He simply threw a puck to the net, it passed a bunch of bodies and sticks in front and ended up behind Detroit’s goaltender – a quick review was made but it was definitely a good goal, a vital goal, which should kill all the talk about his extension, even if only for a brief period of time. Bozak was credited with a deflection in the end.
9) A half-handed effort by Franson let Abdelkader power his way to the net and put the puck behind Bernier. Nothing in hockey, especially in a spectacle such as this, comes easy. The Wings pinched like crazy and it most certainly paid off. Still, if there was any doubt prior to tonight, Jonathan Bernier used the brightest of spotlights to grab the starting position ahead of James Reimer. Perhaps, this will be the biggest storyline of the Winter Classic. Overtime, as exciting as it was, solved nothing and the game went to a shootout where Tyler Bozak, of all people, scored to end the game. Welcome back sir!
10) The final episode of 24/7 will taste much sweeter now. It’s not a Stanley Cup, but it’s a major win the team can rally around and a soothing sensation for the entire contingent of Leafs Nation, which can finally celebrate something. Enjoy it.
2014 Winter Classic Game in 6