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Morning Skate: Maple Leafs at Red Wings

The Red Wings are back at it after enjoying a few days off, and they welcome the surging Toronto Maple Leafs to the Joe tonight for a classic Original 6 showdown.

Normally in this space we'd talk about what each team has been up to lately, but today's a little different.

As many of you know, I was born in the great city of Toronto and spent the first 25 years of my life living and working there. My family still resides in the GTA, and I have many friends that I love to go visit. My memories of the city and surrounding area are many, and most of them are positive.

But I hate the Leafs.

It's hard to understand what it is like to be a fan of a team in enemy territory, especially in a city that loves its team like Toronto does. Leaf fans are one of the most passionate fanbases in the NHL, and I have a lot of respect for the loyalty they show towards the team, even if it is cloaked in sarcasm and cynicism. However, when the team is good, they let you know it, and when you're a kid growing up with all the insecurities of adolescence, it can make life unbearable.

I have a lot of memories of seeing the Wings play at Maple Leaf Gardens: seeing Peter Zezel score 2 goals to single-handedly beat Detroit; in 1994, Wendel Clark ripping an OT winner past Tim Cheveldae after Steve Yzerman scored in the final minute to tie the game (a game that did not feature a loser point, or as I call them, "the good old days"; sitting in the last seat in the last row of the grays and watching the Wings complete the season sweep of the Leafs in 1996; being called a "Dead Thing", "traitor", "bandwagon jumper", and having my Yzerman jersey insulted in the ultimate way: "choker". 1993 was my personal version of hockey hell because not only did the favoured-Wings lose in the first round, they lost to the local team, and it was a week before people stopped giving me grief over it.

The Wings have won 4 Stanley Cups since 1997, and that combined with my moving away from the city (and the fans) and the Leafs' recent lack of on-ice success has helped me get past my issues with the team in blue and white. The Leafs have been replaced by other teams like the Blackhawks, Ducks and Penguins in the place where I contain my hate.

However, when the Wings play them, the old memories come bubbling up to the surface, and I'm reminded of every sneering face, every caustic comment, and every incorrect prediction that I had to endure as a Wing fan in Toronto. I don't just want the Wings to beat the Leafs: I want the Wings to humiliate them, just so that every person who ever did or said something to me is made to feel a little worse. Does that make me bitter? To a Leaf fan (or an outsider), it might seem that way, but unless you've been in this position, it's hard to know what it feels like. Let's not forget that the Leafs have beaten the Wings in their last 2 meetings, games that were special to Detroit and their fans: the 2008 Stanley Cup banner-raising and Steve Yzerman's HHOF induction game.

This game is about more than just 2 points in the standings. It's about more than beating an Original 6 rival. It's about more than getting a step closer to a playoff spot, the 20th straight for the Wings.

For some of us, it's personal.

Pension Plan Puppets is the Leafs' SB Nation blog (and it's a good one, so go check them out).

Analysis and form after the jump.

Now that I got that bit of therapy out of the way, let's look at the game itself, eh?

  • The Leafs have been the true definition of an up-and-down team this year. Some of you may remember that they started out the season winning their first 4 games, but after that they went into the tank for about 3 months. However, since the ASG, they have played quite well, going 15-6-5. That includes back-to-back wins earlier this month against the Flyers and Penguins, no small feat.
  • The surge has allowed the Leafs to get back in the playoff race. Headed into tonight's game (and before any afternoon action), the Leafs sit 5 points back of Buffalo for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East. The Leafs and Sabres will play Tuesday night, so one can't help but wonder if that will give Toronto some extra motivation tonight so they have a chance to get even closer to the Sabres headed into that important matchup.
  • Welcome back, Phil Kessel. The ASG's Mr Irrelevant is likely to hit the 30-goal mark this year despite going 14 games without a goal at one point earlier this season. He is the Leafs' leading goal scorer and one of their biggest offensive threats, but the biggest question is: what is your impression of him when you see him?
  • Perhaps the biggest reason for the Leafs' turnaround has been the play of rookie goaltender James Reimer. Since earning the starting job early in 2011, he has put up good numbers (.924 SV%, 2.51 GAA) behind a less than stellar defense. I don't know a lot about Reimer, but I know the Wings and their history with goalies they are facing the first time, so look for Reimer to make at least 60 saves tonight.
  • Shifting our focus to the Wings, it sounds like Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen are going to be missing yet again, but Todd Bertuzzi may be able to return to action after missing Wednesday's game with back spasms. The last 8 games are about getting healthy, and despite my desire for the Wings to win, I don't want them to rush anyone back who may not be 100%, especially against an Eastern Conference opponent where giving up a loser point is not the end of the world.
  • Congratulations from me to Chris Osgood and his wife on the birth of his son, Max Anthony. Add "extreme fatigue" to the list of physical ailments Ozzie will be battling in the coming weeks.
  • There has been some talk about the Wings' defense this year and their struggles. However, maybe we should be concerned about where the offense has gone. In the month of March, the Wings have scored 2 or less goals in 7 of their 11 games, going 2-4-1. They are 2-0-2 in games where they score 3 or more, so that's something to watch tonight.
  • Key to the game tonight could be special teams. The Wings have a decided advantage over the Leafs both on the power play (22.1% vs 16%) and when shorthanded (83.1% to 78.2%). If the is played evenly while 5-on-5, the Wings will need to capitalize on their chances and limit the Leafs when they take penalties. 
  • The Leafs currently lead the all-time series between these teams with a record of 334-333-93. Let's see if the Wings can get that back to even after tonight.
  • Prediction: I'd like to go with some outrageous score like 15-0 for the Wings, but I'm realistic, so I will say 4-2 Detroit, with Henrik Zetterberg as your Player of the Game.
  • For discussion: I know I have a ton of stories about what it was like to grow up as a Wing fan in Toronto. For the non-locals, tell us where you are from and what sort of experiences you have with opposing fanbases (if you live in an area where there is one). For the locals, how about something that happened to you with another fan (either positive or negative)?