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Winter Classic preview: 2 big points on the line for Red Wings, Maple Leafs

The Red Wings and Maple Leafs take it outside on New Year's Day, but it's more than just a giant spectacle. Two points in the Atlantic Division standings are on the line at Michigan Stadium.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

If nothing else, the 2014 Winter Classic will feature two pretty evenly matched teams that have been heading in the same direction over the past few weeks.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings enter their game at Michigan Stadium tied with 45 points in the standings and they currently occupy the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.

They're also both trying to bust out of recent slumps to hold off some of the recently surging teams in the playoff race.

The Red Wings

Detroit, winners of just four of its past 12 games, has been a little on the unlucky side this season. They have been decimated by injuries, going through lengthy stretches without superstar forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, as well as starting goaltender Jimmy Howard. They are currently without  Jonathan Ericsson and forwards Johan Franzen and Stephen Weiss. The Red Wings have also been unlucky on the ice, having lost nine games in overtime or a shootout.

Howard just returned to the lineup this week, and he struggled in a 6-4 loss against the Nashville Predators.

They're not the same powerhouse team that was competing for Stanley Cups a few years ago, but the Red Wings can still be a very dangerous -- and entertaining -- team when Datsyuk and Zetterberg are in the lineup. They're also getting some contributions from younger players like Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.

The Maple Leafs

Toronto has faced similar struggles lately, and after a fast start that saw the Maple Leafs win 14 of their first 23 games, the team has won just six of its past 17.

The Maple Leafs have a tendency to get pinned in their own zone for long periods of time and rely heavily on their goaltending duo of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. On most nights, they are more than up to the challenge, and the team enters 2014 tied for the fourth-best team save percentage in the league at .924. After years of mediocre to bad goaltending bringing down otherwise solid teams, the Maple Leafs finally seem to have things figured out in net.

Even though the duo has been more of a 1A and 1B situation this season, it seems as though Bernier is starting to earn the trust of coach Randy Carlyle and the team's staff. He has received the bulk of the playing time over the past couple of weeks.

Toronto doesn't always generate a ton of shots, but they do have some potent finishers in Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri that are capable of putting a couple on the scoreboard very quickly and causing problems for opposing defenses. Kessel continues to be the driving force behind Toronto's offense and is on his way to yet another 30-goal season.

Five Questions to Answer

1. How much of an impact will weather have on the Winter Classic?

The forecast in Ann Arbor is calling for snow for most of the day and it's sure to create a magical scene (who can forget the snow globe scene from the first Winter Classic in Buffalo?). But what sort of impact will it have on the game?

2. How will Jimmy Howard perform in net for the Red Wings?

Howard returned to the Detroit lineup this week and struggled against Nashville, giving up five goals on 25 shots and continuing what has been one of his worst seasons to date in the NHL. Toronto may not get a ton of shots, but it's a lineup that certainly has the potential to pose a threat offensively. Will Howard be able to bounce back for Detroit?

3. Will the two teams combine for more than five goals?

The previous five Winter Classics have all had two things in common. They've all been close games decided by one or two goals, and with the exception of the 2009 game in Chicago (a 6-4 Red Wings win), they've all been relatively low-scoring games, even by the current NHL standards. The previous five games have featured an average of 4.6 goals between the two teams. Can the Red Wings and Maple Leafs combine for five goals on Wednesday?

4. Will the game go to overtime?

We've seen two overtime games in the previous Winter Classics, with Pittsburgh defeating Buffalo in a shootout in 2008 and Boston knocking off Philadelphia in 2010 at Fenway Park. If it does get to that point in this year's edition, it is probably bad news for the Red Wings, who are just 3-9 in games decided in overtime or a shootout this season.

5. Will we see our first Winter Classic hat trick?

One thing we have yet to see in the Winter Classic over the years is a hat trick. We've been close a couple of times as Jiri Hudler (Detroit) and Eric Fehr (Washington) scored two goals in the 2009 and 2011 games, respectively. Will this be the year somebody puts in a third goal?

2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic
20-16-5, 45 points
5th in Atlantic Division
Leafs blog: Pension Plan Puppets
18-14-9, 45 points
4th in Atlantic Division
Wings blog: Winging It In Motown
Wednesday, January 1, 2014 :: 1 p.m. ET / 10 a.m. PT
Michigan Stadium :: Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Get complete SB Nation NHL Winter Classic coverage
Starting Goaltenders
Toronto: Jonathan Bernier 28 1585 12 11 64 2.42 911 847 .930 1
Detroit: Jimmy Howard 22 1302 6 9 60 2.76 639 579 .906 2
Projected Lineups
van Riemsdyk - Bozak - Kessel 1st Line Zetterberg - Datsyuk - Bertuzzi
Raymond - Kadri - Lupul 2nd Line Abdelkader - Helm - Eaves
Kulemin - McClement - Clarkson 3rd Line Miller - Andersson - Tatar
D'Amigo - Holland - Orr 4th Line Nyquist - Glendening - Cleary
Gunnarsson - Phaneuf 1st D Pair Kronwall - Dekeyser
Franson - Gardiner 2nd D Pair Kindl - Quincey
Rielly - Ranger 3rd D Pair Smith - Lashoff
Team Stats
2.66 (T-15h) GF/G 2.58 (17th)
2.78 (17th) GA/G 2.71 (16th)
22.3% (5th) PP% 19.3% (11th)
77.5% (27th) PK% 84.4% (8th)
47.2% (25th) Faceoff % 51.3% (12th)
42.2% (29th) Fenwick %* 51.3% (13th)
8.2% (11th) Shot %* 8.9% (4th)
94.0% (4th) Save %* 92.7% (14th)
102.2 (5th) PDO* 101.5 (9th)
*stats counted at 5v5 while score is close (why?)
need a primer on advanced hockey stats?

More from the Winter Classic:

Will my Winter Classic seats suck? | What to do in Ann Arbor

Photos from the Big House | Snow in the forecast!

Some thoughts from Comerica Park

Alumni Showdown: Red Wings sweep Leafs