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Weather frightful, Winter Classic delightful -- especially for Leafs

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The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings face off during the first period of the Winter Classic outdoor NHL hockey game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., Wednesday.

PAUL SANCYA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings face off during the first period of the Winter Classic outdoor NHL hockey game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., Wednesday.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Mike Babcock wasn't on the ice at Michigan Stadium, so seven minutes into the Winter Classic, the Detroit Red Wings coach asked star Pavel Datsyuk how he thought things were going.

"He said, 'Well, we're being too careful with the puck,' " Babcock recalled. "But he said, 'We got to be, because you're scared to turn it over, there's so much snow.' "

Snow built up amid frigid temperatures throughout the game. The Toronto Maple Leafs ultimately won 3-2 in a shootout to jump ahead of the Red Wings in the standings. The conditions didn't make for the prettiest fundamental game, but the spectacle of having a capacity crowd of 105,491 at this venue set such a picturesque scene, it overshadowed those shortcomings.

"I don't know if you would call it a gem from a pace standpoint," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "The weather definitely changed the way it was presented, with the snow coming down, and it brought back a lot of memories from a childhood of playing outside."

Even after watching Tyler Bozak score the shootout winner against his Red Wings, Babcock was beaming and talking about how glad he was to participate in an event that set the NHL attendance record and might have been enough to make the Guinness Book of World Records.

It didn't even bother him that the snow slowed the puck and players down.

"I thought that was a big part of the atmosphere in today's game to make it even more special," Babcock said. "To me, today was a home run for hockey."

It was -11 C when the puck dropped at 1:31 p.m., and snow fell steadily throughout the game, which featured goals from James van Riemsdyk and Bozak for Toronto and Daniel Alfredsson and Justin Abdelkader for Detroit. Coaches remarked that the snow had the biggest impact on power plays, based on how long they came after the crew was able to shovel the ice.

"The NHL did a good job keeping the ice as clean as possible," said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, whose shot was deflected in by Bozak to give Toronto the lead in the third period. "It's an experience. It's an outdoor game in the middle of winter -- you're going to have snow."

That was commissioner Gary Bettman's message afterward as well. This is the first of six outdoor games in the NHL this season, and inevitably the weather makes an impact.

In this case, Bettman was satisfied with how "ice guru" Dan Craig and others handled the conditions to make this game playable.

"We're playing outdoors and that's what you get when you play outdoors. When you get the elements, you get the elements," Bettman said. "You could tell as the logo started getting more covered when we needed to shovel. It actually looked like synchronized swimming, so to speak. They did a great job. Listen, whatever the conditions were, it was the same for both teams."

The conditions led to some sloppy play, especially a slow start as players had to feel out the conditions. The Leafs beat the Red Wings in a shootout Dec. 21 at Air Canada Centre, but this was uglier because of the snow.

"You lose the puck every once in a while because you get stuck in the snow or you can't find it," Red Wings defenceman Brendan Smith said. "The game was a lot simpler because you had to make smart decisions."

Some smart decisions came from the Leafs' top line of van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Phil Kessel, which produced both goals in regulation. After the game, Kessel and van Riemsdyk were named to the U.S. Olympic team, along with Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard, who made 24 saves in a losing effort but bounced back from his five-goal outing Monday in Nashville.

"I don't know if it was a low point for him, but Howie's better than that," Babcock said. "So for him to respond today, he didn't have a lot of work, but he had some tough plays. And the way the puck was bouncing, it was hard anyways for a goaltender."

It was hard on Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier, too, but he was up to the task in making 41 saves through regulation and overtime. That's a record for an NHL outdoor game, surpassing the Calgary Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff's 39 in the 2011 Heritage Classic.

Bernier said visibility was bad in the first period, and then the wind became the problem in the second when the teams changed ends. In the shootout, he figured he had an edge because players couldn't stick-handle as well.

"I tried to play the odds with the ice advantage, probably, as a goalie," said Bernier, who stopped Alfredsson and Tomas Tatar in the shootout. "I tried to take away the angles and be more aggressive a little bit and hopefully they go for the deke and miss the puck."

Datsyuk didn't miss, but neither did Joffrey Lupul or Bozak, and so the Leafs moved one point ahead of Detroit in the Eastern Conference wild-card and Atlantic Division standings.

Babcock was so pleased with his team's effort, specifically how much they held on to the puck, that he addressed players after the loss, something he rarely, if ever, does.

"The conditions made it so some of the skill in the game was eliminated, but I still thought the players competed hard," Babcock said. "It was a good game for our team. So all in all, it was a good day."

Given the enormity of the proceedings, it was a good day all around. But it was naturally better for the Leafs because they got the victory.

"It's a tight conference for us," Bozak said. "We haven't been playing our greatest lately, so it was a huge two points for our team. So I think that was the main thing. We had to take it as a regular game. Obviously there were some distractions, but we needed these two points back, and we're happy we got them."

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 2, 2014 D1

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Updated on Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 6:45 AM CST: Replaces photo, changes headline

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