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."

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