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Wednesday Daily Puck: A Classic Conundrum

Dan Pennucci

Dan Pennucci

Dan Pennucci has covered hockey for Rotowire since 2002 and is the author of Blue Line Buzz since 2011 as well as being the co-author of Morning Skate. He also is a contributor to Talking Red, a New Jersey Devils blog and podcast. He is an English teacher and formerly wrote for The Coast Star in Manasquan, New Jersey where he and his sports section won several New Jersey Press Association awards. Dan Pennucci is a supporter of the New Jersey Devils, Washington Nationals and Chelsea FC. He's attended sporting events in six countries.

Stumbling To Ann Arbor
One could logically assume that both Detroit and Toronto will be relieved when Wednesday’s Winter Classic is over. The omnipotent media presence, the HBO cameras stalking them, the fervent hype surrounding a regular season game, albeit a novel one. Both teams had their share of injuries and suspensions the last month as well as their own respective stretches of poor results.

Adding another obstacle to Wednesday’s game is the weather forecast for Ann Arbor, temperatures in the teens and the potential for snow.

Detroit lost six consecutive games during the first two episodes of HBO’s 24/7 and seven of nine heading into the NHL’s Christmas break; one of those wins came against Toronto in a sloppily-played 5-4 win on December 21 via the shootout. Unfortunately, that game was followed by a 3-0 shutout loss to the Islanders. However, Monday’s 6-4 loss to hapless Nashville should be of concern to the Red Wings as the goals Jimmy Howard surrendered to the Preds were a bit on the weaker side. Howard had missed several weeks of play with a Grade 1 MCL sprain.

Despite the return of both their goalie and their captain in recent games, the Red Wings are hoping to find their stride.

The Leafs also struggled since the arrival of the cameras, although it’s unclear if the two are related. Despite their rough patches early in December, the Buds have won their last two tilts leading up to Wednesday against two opponents they should beat, Buffalo and Carolina. Following December 14th’s thrashing of Chicago, the Leafs lost four of five games, with their lone win coming over Phoenix in a shootout.

The Buds have dealt with suspensions to both Dion Phaneuf and David Clarkson over the last month as well as some smaller slumps from the likes of Phil Kessel. Whatever shackles were keeping Kessel quiet have disappeared though, as the American sniper has three goals in four points in the last two games. A notoriously streaky player, few are tougher to contain while producing than Kessel.

While the Leafs’ scoring is in the capable hands of Phil the Thrill, their crease continues to be a topic of discussion, although there hasn’t been much talk lately as Jonathan Bernier has delivered three solid efforts since relieving James Reimer after the latter struggled early in last Saturday’s loss to Detroit. Bernier has allowed just seven goals in his last four appearances.

The three-game stretch for Bernier as the Buds’ starter is the longest for any Leafs’ goalie this season, a stretch that becomes four games on Wednesday. The team had been hoping one goalie would seize the job after neither held anything more than a tenuous grasp on the spot most of the year.

Neither squad is playing their best hockey as both cling to the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. If the game on December 21 was any indication, there could be some scoring in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, although expect the weather to factor into the result and the offense.

A Tale of Two Captains
The Maple Leafs made news on Monday by ensuring Dion Phaneuf will not become a free agent this coming offseason, locking up their captain to a seven-year, $49 million deal. Those who have been watching 24/7 saw a preview in episode three that the Leafs would be re-signing their captain, as the team’s assistant general manager, Claude Loiselle, received word from Phaneuf’s agent that they were nearing a deal. Phaneuf is still a lightning rod for criticism thanks to the C on his Leafs’ sweater, and this deal will certainly exacerbate that scrutiny. He’s the team’s top defender and one of their leaders; time will tell if this deal will be an albatross, but it’s another long-term deal for the Leafs considering what they signed David Clarkson and Phil Kessel to earlier this season. However, with the salary cap going up thanks to the Leafs’ owners, Rogers, something says the Buds can afford it.

The Red Wings received a welcomed addition to their lineup on Saturday, getting captain Henrik Zetterberg back after missing nearly a month with a groin injury. He responded merely by assisting on two of Detroit’s goals Monday and scoring one in Saturday’s win over Florida. Despite missing almost a month, Zetterberg is still the team’s leading scorer with 33 points through 30 games.

Not The Only Game
There actually is another game on Wednesday, albeit three time zones, 2,000 miles and six hours away from the Winter Classic. Vancouver hosts Tampa Bay in an inter-conference matchup that isn’t nearly as compelling on paper as the Wings-Leafs tilt.

The story for Vancouver will be how they respond after a rough loss to Philadelphia on Monday. The Flyers knotted up the game at three with just 47 seconds remaining in the contest on a Brayden Schenn goal before losing in a shootout. Save for Monday’s loss, Vancouver netminder Eddie Lack has been giving the Canucks solid play, posting a 3-0-1 record in his last four starts, allowing just six goals over that span; a span that included a 3-2 win over Chicago and victories over Winnipeg and Calgary.

The Bolts enter Wednesay’s game having lost their last two games, narrowly falling both to Montreal and the Rangers following a five-game winning streak prior to the Holiday break. While Tampa Bay is awaiting the return of Steven Stamkos, goaltender Ben Bishop continues to be one of the league’s stories of the season. Bishop has allowed more than two goals just once since November 22, a span of 12 starts. That lone blip, December 10 against Washington, seems like years ago, as Bishop has been one of the league’s best since then, posting a 5-0-1 record and surrendering just seven goals over those six starts.

Bishop’s name has been in the hockey news circles the last two days as he is expected to be passed over for the final goaltending spot on Team USA’s roster for Sochi in favor of Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, a goalie just returning from a knee injury. The other two goalies on the roster are Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller, whose naming to the squad is a mere formality. The third spot between Howard, Bishop and New Jersey’s Cory Schneider was the only spot in question with regards to the American crease.

Team USA’s entire roster, both men’s and women’s, is slated to be announced during NBC’s telecast Wednesday.

Projected Goalie Starters (all times Eastern)
For updates on the projected goalies later in the day, check our Projected Goalies Grid

Toronto Maple Leafs (Jonathan Bernier) at Detroit Red Wings (Jimmy Howard), 1:00 PM
Tampa Bay Lightning (Ben Bishop) at Vancouver Canucks (Eddie Lack), 10:00 PM

Injury News For Teams Playing Wednesday
Toronto Maple Leafs
Dave Bolland, C - Bolland has been placed on long-term injured reserve, David Alter of Sportsnet 590 The Fan reports. (11/8/2013)

Trevor Smith, LW - Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said after Tuesday's game against Florida that Smith suffered a broken hand, David Alter of Sportsnet 590 The Fan reports. (12/17/2013)

Detroit Red Wings
Jonas Gustavsson, G - Gustavsson (groin) will not play Monday against the Predators, Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News reports. (12/29/2013)

Johan Franzen, C - Franzen (concussion) said that he will not play in Wednesday's Winter Classic against the Maple Leafs, Ansar Khan of MLive.com reports. (12/30/2013)

Jonathan Ericsson, D - Ericsson (ribs) was placed on IR on Friday. (12/27/2013)

Daniel Alfredsson, RW - Updating a previous report, Alfredsson missed Monday's game due to back spasms, and is expected to return for Wednesday's Winter Classic, Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press reports. (12/30/2013)

Stephen Weiss, C - Weiss has chosen to undergo surgery for a sports hernia and will be out until late-February, MLive.com's Ansar Khan reports. (12/21/2013)

Tampa Bay Lightning
Mattias Ohlund, D - Ohlund (knee) was placed on long-term injured reserve Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times reports. (10/2/2013)

Eric Brewer, D - Brewer (upper body) was wearing his regular jersey during Tuesday's practice, Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune reports. (12/31/2013)

Sami Salo, D - Salo (upper body) was wearing a non-contact jersey during Tuesday's practice, Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune reports. (12/31/2013)

Ryan Malone, LW - Malone (foot) has received clearance to return to game action, Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times reports. (12/31/2013)

Brian Lee, D - Lee (knee) is still only doing off-ice workouts. (11/9/2013)

Steven Stamkos, C - Stamkos (leg) took part in the team's morning skate but will not play Saturday, Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune reports. (12/14/2013)

Keith Aulie, D - Aulie (hand) is expected to miss at least three more weeks of action, Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune reports. (12/28/2013)

Vancouver Canucks
Jordan Schroeder, C - Schroeder (ankle) had successful surgery on his broken ankle in early November and is expected to return in eight-to-nine weeks, News 1130 reports. (11/5/2013)

Ryan Stanton, D - Coach John Tortorella said Stanton would miss multiple weeks with an ankle injury, Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun reports. (12/19/2013)

Hunter Shinkaruk, C - Shinkaruk will require major hip surgery and miss the rest of the WHL season, Elliott Pap of the Vancouver Sun reports. (12/27/2013)

Alexandre Burrows, RW - Updating a previous report, Burrows underwent successful surgery on a broken jaw Monday and will be out for four weeks, News 1130 reports. (12/3/2013)

Alexander Edler, D - Edler took the ice to test out his injured knee Monday morning, the Vancouver Sun reports. (12/30/2013)

Andrew Alberts, D - Alberts left Sunday's game against the Flames to be evaluated for a possible concussion and will not return, Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun reports. (12/29/2013)

Roberto Luongo, G - Luongo (groin) skated with the team Monday morning and looks close to being ready to return, the Vancouver Province's Jim Jamieson reports. (12/30/2013)

Hot
Phil Kessel, W, Toronto- After heading quietly into Christmas break, Kessel has three goals in the last two games. During his career, Kessel tends to score in bunches and may be cresting as we speak. Expected to be one of Team USA’s top scorers in Sochi, Kessel can deliver consistent offense for the Buds and owners alike.

Ben Bishop, G, Tampa Bay-Bishop has been one of the league’s best netminders all season but has stepped up his play in recent weeks, shedding greater light on his snub from Team USA’s roster. Bishop has allowed just seven goals over his last six starts and did not play in Monday’s loss to the Rangers.

Valtteri Filppula, C, Tampa Bay-Few players in the league have been more consistent since the middle of December than Filppula, who has nine points over the last six games, including four goals. He grabbed two points Monday in the loss to the Rangers. Filpulla has filled in quite well for the injured Stamkos, giving the Lightning consistent scoring after inking a five-year deal worth $5 million per season back in July.

Pavel Datsyuk, C, Detroit- Datsyuk is showing little signs of rust following a concussion earlier in the month, grabbing seven points over the last six games including a goal and two helpers in Detroit’s two tilts leading up to the Winter Classic.

Cold
Ryan Kesler, C, Vancouver- Kesler has not scored a goal since December 8 and has just one point in the last six games. Kesler is still seeing regular ice time as well as scoring opportunities. His slump isn’t for a lack of trying, as Kesler has 22 shots in the last six games, including seven in Monday’s loss to Philadelphia. Expected to be one Team USA’s top centers, Kesler is a better player than he’s shown the last two weeks.

Matt Carle, D, Tampa Bay- Carle has been rather quiet the last nine contests, with a modest two assists and one in the last four games. Compounding matters is the fact that he has just one power-play point since the end of October. Carle will continue to see power-play time for the Bolts, it’s just a matter of him producing more.

Joffrey Lupul, LW, Toronto- The six points Lupul has since his return to the lineup on December 11 are rather deceiving. All six have come in the space of two games, leaving no points in the other eight he’s played in that span. Lupul slammed home four points against Chicago and chipped in another two last Saturday against Detroit. He’s an elite player when he is producing, but a bit more consistency would be welcomed.

Recommended Pickup
Mats Zuccarello, RW, New York Rangers- The Norweigan wizard known for his shootout skills has been rather productive of late with seven points in the last seven games, including three in Monday’s win over Tampa Bay. He’s developing as a threat on the power play as well, with five of his last seven points coming on the man advantage. 18 of his season’s 28 points have come since November 23 and he should continue to see scoring chances.