With millions of viewers expected to tune into the games across North America, all eyes will be on a team that was at the receiving end of every bad joke last May. The Maple Leafs are known across the league as the team that blew their infamous 4-1 lead in the final 10 minutes of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. Toronto can use the Winter Classic to slay their 2013 demons and springboard into 2014 with a surge of momentum by quieting those who doubt if the team can return to the playoffs this season.
If the Maple Leafs are able to escape over 100,000 screaming, freezing hockey fans attending the game in Michigan with two points over the Red Wings, it would be the exact start needed for the club entering the New Year. Toronto has stumbled into 2014, struggling for the past month and a half. Since Nov. 9 the team that started the season 10-4 has produced a record of only 9-11-5. Injuries and a brutal schedule against elite teams from the Western Conference haven’t helped the struggles. However, with the team finally healing and the schedule not looking nearly as rough the next six weeks compared to the previous six, Toronto could use the Winter Classic to kick start a run in the standings heading into the Olympic break.
The NHL deserves plenty of credit for what they’ve been able to turn the Winter Classic into. The game has now become must watch TV for not only hardcore sports fans but casual viewers who rarely sit down to fit a hockey game into their schedule. The showdown between two teams playing outside in a stadium where weather, bad ice, darkness and several other elements could play a major factor in the contest owns the sporting world on New Year’s Day.
The NHL also deserves credit for involving HBO and their 24/7 series that spends four weeks hyping the game with behind the scenes footage. It’s another four hours of must watch TV for every hockey fan who wants to see what actually happens behind closed doors leading up to the Winter Classic. However, Toronto won’t be too upset when the HBO cameras leave their dressing room and stop following the players around everywhere they go in-between games. The Maple Leafs already endure more cameras in their face than any other team in the league and the extra attention wasn’t needed, especially with the team struggling. Players will finally be able to focus all their energy into their on-ice performance and no longer have to put up with the distraction the HBO series provided. The team will deny it, but life will certainly be easier without answering questions every day about the filming or what happened in the recent episode.
With so many eyes tuning into the game, the contest is a much bigger deal than just two points in the standings. It marks the official beginning of the second half of the season, and with both teams tied with 45 points after 41 games played it could decide who gains the momentum in securing a playoff berth in 2014.