TORONTO – Before the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings take it outside at the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, they’ll play Saturday at Air Canada Centre.
It’s a dress rehearsal of sorts for the NHL’s regular-season showcase event, but more than anything else it’s a chance for the teams to get acquainted in their first matchup since Jan. 7, 2012.
“It’ll be good, especially probably on the special teams, how they play their power play and PK and what we can do to take advantage of that,” Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said.
Gunnarsson is one of just nine Leafs players who were in uniform for that 2012 meeting and are expected to play Saturday night. One of those is now-Red Wings goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who joins just seven Detroit players who are still around from that game.
Some of it is turnover but it’s also partially the result of injuries that have ravaged the Red Wings, who are missing a handful of regulars including Henrik Zetterberg (back), Johan Franzen (concussion), Justin Abdelkader (concussion) and Jimmy Howard (knee).
With some players nearing returns, like Detroit defenceman Danny DeKeyser, Toronto goaltender James Reimer cautioned that this really isn’t a straight preview of the Winter Classic.
“It’s a different team than what you might see in a week or two,” Reimer said.
That’s true for the Leafs as well, given that centre Tyler Bozak is eligible to come off long-term injured reserve Dec. 29 after missing almost a month with an oblique strain.
Who plays Saturday versus who plays in the Winter Classic doesn’t mean as much as the result in the eyes of Leafs coach Randy Carlyle.
“I look at it as an important game on our schedule,” Carlyle said. “Focus on playing the Detroit Red Wings who are a real talented hockey club that have a lot of depth in their lineup and have a lot of tradition of winning. We’ve had our challenges as of late, and we’re trying to use (Thursday) night’s win as a starting point for us to go forward and build something with our group.”
The Leafs and Red Wings each snapped losing streaks Thursday night. Toronto beat the Phoenix Coyotes in a shootout, while Detroit beat the Calgary Flames in overtime.
Daniel Alfredsson’s goal ended a six-game skid for the Red Wings, who would love to get rolling into the Winter Classic and beyond. The same could be said about the Leafs, who insist their focus is on now and not the game happening at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
“I don’t think we’re focusing on the Winter Classic as a group, we’re focusing on tomorrow’s game with Detroit,” said goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who’s optimistic he’ll be able to suit up despite a lower-body injury. “I think right now as a team we need those wins and (Thursday) night was a really big win for our confidence. We can be happy but not satisfied, because we haven’t won too many games lately.”
Of course HBO’s “24/7” cameras will be documenting Saturday night’s game, which means the spotlight will be just that shade brighter than a usual “Hockey Night in Canada” affair.
“It sure is something special this year with the Winter Classic coming up,” Gunnarsson said. “We just want to make a stand here tomorrow night. It’ll be a fun night.”
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.