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The National Hockey League’s New Year’s Day spectacle lived up to the hype and then some at The Big House. Playing in front of a historically large crowd, the Toronto Maple Leafs earned the two points in a regular season clash that proved to be so much more. Though Tyler Bozak‘s shootout winner may have disappointed the tens of thousands of Red Wings fans packed into Michigan Stadium, it was a fitting end to a magnificent afternoon.
Clad in gorgeous throwback sweaters, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings marched out together in front of more than 100,000 spectators, and it soon became apparent that both teams needed some time to adjust to the big stage.
With outdoor experience gained at Wrigley Field in 2009, the Red Wings settled into the snowy scene first. Outshooting their Atlantic Division rivals 15-3 in the first period, the Wings had nearly all of the quality scoring chances. Though both teams moved the puck cautiously and struggled to utilize the full width of the ice, Detroit had little trouble plowing straight into the slot.
Controlling all of the quality real estate early on, Detroit seemed destined to take the lead. However, Toronto’s Jonathan Bernier was up to every challenge. Sporting a tuque over his mask, Bernier confidently slammed the door throughout the period. He was especially strong rejecting a Daniel Cleary one-time attempt at the edge of the crease that seemed certain to light the lamp.
The Toronto skaters gained ground after the first intermission, but Detroit still edged in front 13 minutes into the middle frame. Hung out to dry by a bad change, Leafs defender Jake Gardiner was victimized by the Swedish duo of Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson who sprung a lethal 2-on-1. Zetterberg’s centering pass failed to find Alfredsson’s stick, but it still managed to launch off the veteran’s skate blade into the back of the net.
Randy Carlyle‘s Maple Leafs took energy from their deficit, tilting the ice towards Red Wing goalie Jimmy Howard. Toronto’s James Van Riemsdyk became a menace around the crease for the rest of the period. A former Maine Black Bear, Howard rejected the UNH alum on a pair of threatening chances. However when a third attempt on goal was stoned, the three-time Winter Classic participant emphatically batted the rebound out of the air and into the net.
Firmly in control of proceedings, the Maple Leafs struck again early in the third. Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf launched a blast from the point, and Tyler Bozak tipped it underneath Howard’s glove from the edge of the crease.
As if inspired by Phaneuf’s suggestion, both teams began to frantically hurl pucks towards the front of the net for the remainder of regulation. That strategy finally paid off for Detroit following a mid-period break, during which the teams swapped ends.
With just five and a half minutes remaining, Brendan Smith shoveled the puck out of the corner with a backhand whack, and former Michigan State Spartan Justin Abdelkader crashed to the front of the net to direct it home. The goal was the second blemish on a brilliant day for Jonathan Bernier, who made 41 saves prior to the shootout.
Gustav Nyquist nearly snatched a late-winner for Detroit, but he failed to see Henrik Zetterberg begging for the puck in the slot after curling out of a near-breakaway. Instead, he tossed the puck wide of Bernier’s net with his back to the goal, and time expired.
Cody Franson rung the iron in the extra session, but the Toronto defenseman could not prevent the game from going the distance. Like the first Winter Classic back in 2008, this one was meant to be decided in a shootout.
Perhaps further removed from his pond-hockey days than most of today’s competitors at 41-years-old, Daniel Alfredsson failed to score on the first attempt. Moments before being named to the US Olympic team, Jimmy Howard then refused to let Sochi teammate James Van Riemsdyk beat him for a second time on the day
The deadlock was broken by Pavel Datsyuk. Four years after scoring in his first Winter Classic, Datsyuk lived up to his reputation as a shootout wizard with a nifty goal. Joffrey Lupul then leveled the score once again with a dead-pan wrister through Howard’s five hole.
Tomas Tatar‘s move was spoiled by the snow, which tugged the puck off his tape amidst an elaborate stick-handling display. Tyler Bozak then coolly fired the puck by Howard’s blocker to end it.
The win was Toronto’s third straight and moved the Maple Leafs past the Red Wings in the Atlantic Division standings. At the end of the day it almost seems silly that the whole extravagant event amounted only to the difference between fourth and fifth place in a division with forty games left on the schedule, but that’s the magic of the Winter Classic. It’s a celebration of a simple game played for its own sake. It wasn’t an all-star game. There was no trophy on the line. It was just a perfect afternoon to play some hockey, and boy, did Toronto and Detroit give us a great game.
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