Don't forget about the game


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Not lost in all the pomp and circumstance of the Winter Classic, the NHL's closest thing to a Super Bowl, is that this year's game features two clubs fighting for their playoff lives.

Oh, sure, the players made Tuesday's practice day a family affair, with relatives allowed on the ice with the players after their team skate. Heck, I'm not sure there was a cuter sight than Wings goalie Jimmy Howard prepping his 2-year-old son for the skate.

"I think today's the day that both teams can go out and enjoy it and have fun being outside," Wings forward Justin Abdelkader said after practice at the Big House. "Obviously, you're going to enjoy the experience tomorrow, but at the same time, it's a game and it has big implications, division rival, obviously Original Six, both teams fighting for a playoff spot. It's a big game for both teams. Tomorrow's more about business."

Make no mistake about it, this year's game has an added ingredient thrown into mix: the absolute desperation of wanting those two points in the standings, knowing they could make the difference in making it come April. Neither one of these clubs has banked any kind of insurance in the standings.

"It's a huge game," veteran Wings forward Dan Cleary, eye-black dripping down his face, said Tuesday after his team's outdoor practice. "We understand it's a divisional opponent. We know where we sit. We know where Toronto sits. We need to get going."

There's raw tension to this matchup, pitting two clubs that have had their ups and downs -- mostly downs -- over the past while. The Original Six rivals are tied with 45 points, each holding one of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference. It makes the New Year's Day tilt all the more enticing.

"I think that makes it even more important and special," said Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg. "I heard some talk that it shouldn't be a division game, it should be East against West, but I think this is how it should be. It is two very important points on the line."

The Wings have won just three of their past 10 games, and the Leafs have only two regulation wins in their last 20 games.

So don't confuse this year's Winter Classic with a pure celebration of hockey. You've got two teams foaming at the mouth.

"Let's not lose sight of the fact we're in a dog fight," agreed Leafs coach Randy Carlyle after practice Tuesday. "I'm sure both teams and both coaches have the same perspective on what their seasons have been like. There have been challenges ... the inconsistencies of the teams and their performances."

"We're in the same division and we're both fighting for a playoff spot; there's even more to it than the event," added Wings GM Ken Holland. "It's a big two points."

With so much on the line Wednesday, expect as normal a regulation game as possible, which means physical play. The Wings were involved in one of the more physical games in the Winter Classic when they came out hitting against the Blackhawks in 2009. And that was the plan, Cleary said.

"We talked about getting into the game and getting involved," he said. "I think that'll be our mindset tomorrow, too. To get loose and to get warmed up, you get banging."

The Wings have that Jan. 1, 2009, Winter Classic under their belt, beating the Blackhawks at Wrigley, while the Maple Leafs are making their outdoor game debut. Advantage Detroit?

"It's nice to have been part of it before. Now you know what to expect," said Zetterberg.

For him, that means knowing how to handle the elements this time around and to not overreact with extra layers of clothing.

"I actually think I'll wear the same stuff I wear in a normal game," said Zetterberg.

Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk is the outdoor expert in his dressing room, having played in two previous Winter Classics with the Philadelphia Flyers, but he downplayed any tactical advantage gained by having done so.

"It all depends on the day and the weather and what it brings; each one can be a bit different," said van Riemsdyk , expected to be named to the U.S. Olympic team Wednesday after the game. "I remember in Boston the conditions were perfect as far as the ice, and the temperature wasn't too bad, so you could wear pretty much the same thing. But I remember in Philadelphia, it was warmer; I had to mess around with my skates because the ice wasn't very good. So you have to play it by ear when you get out there and figure it out."

Strangely, van Riemsdyk said none of his teammates has approached him for advice despite his Winter Classic résumé. In the Wings' room, that's teamwide knowledge.

"We've got a lot of guys that played in Chicago," said Clearly. "The experience from that is basically: You don't need as much clothing as you think, and have fun with it."

Wings blueliner Niklas Kronwall remembers another lesson from Wrigley.

"We put this black stuff on," he said of the eye black. "I remember at Wrigley Field, I thought it looked kind of silly when guys were doing it. But it does actually help. That's definitely something I'll wear."

On the flip side, perhaps favoring the Leafs, the visiting team is 4-1 in the Winter Classic, so that's another factor to keep in mind.

"The home teams don't fare well in these events. Babs keeps reminding us of that," Cleary said of Wings coach Mike Babcock. "We want to come out and play well. The experience of having played in one before, does it play a factor? I don't know. I think the biggest thing is goaltending and their ability to see the puck and battle the glare and the wind."

The theory is that the home team in the Winter Classic, since it's the week of New Year's Eve and all, has more distractions at home than the visiting team, what with getting tickets for everyone and everything else the event entails.

"That would be a bit of our concern, that our players have got a lot of things going on away from the rink," said Holland. "But hopefully the fact we've been in it in '09, we've talked about the success of the road team in this event, we know that, so let's play."

Babcock has been hammering home to his players the point about the visiting team's success in this event and the need to be focused. Babcock also wants his players to embrace the moment, despite the need to grab those two points.

"I think you're supposed to enjoy whatever you do," said Babcock, Canada's Olympic coach. "You don't remember everything in your life, but you remember moments. This should be one. But it's way more fun when you win. It's been like that since you were 6."

Just what Toronto's van Riemsdyk also had in mind.

"You want to enjoy the whole experience of it, but at the end of the day, it is a game for two points," he said. "The memory will be better if we win the game."

That's exactly what the Wings did in 2009, creating a memory with a victory in Chicago that will last for a long time.

"I will say before the last game, I was a little skeptical, to be honest with you," said Kronwall. "I thought it was going to be cold and we'd be freezing out there. But when the game was over, it was almost like we all looked at each other and said, 'Let's do this again.' Because that's how much fun it was."

They will do it again Wednesday.