Commentary

Amid the Classic buzz, players try not to lose sight of what's at stake

Updated: January 1, 2009, 2:02 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- The 41,000 fans at Wrigley Field will surely get treated to a show New Year's Day and maybe, just maybe, a hockey game might also break out.

Last season's Winter Classic in Buffalo was a TV-friendly affair, snowflakes decorating a postcard-worthy vignette and Sidney Crosby scoring the shootout winner. Can you write a better script?

But let's be honest, the game itself was largely a no-hitter, mainly because of weather and ice conditions that made it so, but also because the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins had no real history between them.

Make no mistake about it. Sure, the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks are thrilled to be taking part in an once-in-a-lifetime event Thursday. But underneath all those nice things, there lies a cold, hard truth that players on both sides were talking about after their outdoor practices Wednesday: They don't like each other.

It showed Tuesday night in a chippy 4-0 victory by the Wings. The players wearing red and white might be getting just a little tired about all the hype the young-gun Blackhawks have been getting this season. Tuesday's one-sided victory was a statement.

"It was important to us to say, 'Hey, we're still here and we're still the team to beat,'" Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuart said. "We expect a response from them tomorrow. They'll be better than they were last night."

We don't need to tell you how sweet it would be for the Cup champs to steal the show Thursday and leave town eight points ahead in the Central Division and armed with wonderful Winter Classic memories.

In the Cubs' clubhouse Wednesday, the message didn't stray from one Blackhawk to another. Yes, they had a blast in the outdoor practice and can't wait to play Thursday, but anything short of a victory would be a colossal disappointment.

"There's business to take care of," Blackhawks rookie forward Kris Versteeg said. "We really need these points. Detroit is the team we're chasing."

"We need those two points," echoed Hawks blueliner Brian Campbell. "This is a big game. We're trying to catch that team. We have to try and enjoy the moment without losing sight of what's at stake."

Because of that, weather permitting, it'll be interesting to see if there's the kind of hitting you'd expect from a game that would have been played at the United Center.

"The tone was set last night with big hits. It's going to be fun tomorrow," Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said with a wry smile.

"The games are always tight between these two teams and it's probably going to be even more intense tomorrow," said Blackhawks blueliner Duncan Keith.

Consider Thursday's Winter Classic an important test for the young Hawks. They have to prove, on national television, that they can dance with the Cup champs in a game the Wings want badly. It's the kind of gut check that will serve the Blackhawks well come playoff time if they meet the Wings in the second round.

For Detroit, it's hockey that finally matters Thursday. Like it or not, the Red Wings have sleepwalked at times through the first three months of the season (despite that, they're second in the West; not exactly terrible). They play 30 or 45 minutes -- just enough to win games -- but rarely 60. Winning a Cup is mentally exhausting and there's no way this veteran group was going to push the pedal down all the way until it was really needed.

But the Winter Classic? They want this one badly.

"The atmosphere is a lot like the Stanley Cup finals, so it's something we're used to," said Stuart.

And for Wings coach Mike Babcock, there's no need to try to push buttons on this day. He knows his players will be primed.

"The whole thing that goes with [the Winter Classic], I think, is so important with your family, with sharing it with people ... yet when the puck drops tomorrow, it's a big two points."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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