5 things to watch for in the 2019 Winter Classic

What will the Bruins' lineup look like against the Blackhawks?

Crews work to set up a hockey rink and staging for the NHL Winter Classic game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins Friday, Dec. 21, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
Crews work to set up a hockey rink and staging for the NHL Winter Classic game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins Friday, Dec. 21, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune) MUST CREDIT –Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune

COMMENTARY

The Bruins closed out 2018 with a gutsy win in Buffalo to establish a little momentum heading into the 2019 NHL Winter Classic. Now they hope to start the New Year off with a bang.

The Blackhawks are far removed from their decade of dominance. An aging core coupled with the recent firing of longtime coach Joel Quenneville and a plethora of youth has them in a rebuilding phase. Yet, they’d like nothing more than to knock off their Original Six foes at historic Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

There’s plenty to look forward to when two historic franchises face off on the same field that Knute Rockne, The Four Horsemen, and Joe Montana — to name a few — once called home. Here are five things to watch for the 2019 NHL Winter Classic.

1. The Bruins’ lineup

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They nearly had a clean bill of health coming out of the Christmas break, but the Bruins will have to wait a tad longer until they have their ideal lineup. Zdeno Chara, Kevan Miller and Jake DeBrusk all returned in Boston’s first post-Christmas tilt against the Devils Thursday night.

Yet, in a case of two steps forward and one step back, Charlie McAvoy sustained a lower-body injury during the team’s 5-3 loss in Carolina on Dec. 23 and is day-to-day. Add Brad Marchand to the latest list of injured Bruins as he exited Thursday’s ugly 5-2 loss to the Devils and didn’t suit up for Saturday’s tilt in Buffalo.

Then there’s David Backes, who is serving a three-game suspension for his elbow to the head of Devils forward Blake Coleman.

Even with McAvoy’s absence, the Bruins are a little more well-rounded on the back end since the start of the season. The same can’t be said with the forward core with Marchand’s unknown status and Backes’s suspension leaving a hole in the bottom-six. Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson (healthy scratch) or Anders Bjork (in Providence) are two likely candidates to fill Backes’s third line void, while Danton Heinen and Joakim Nordstrom are prime for top-six minutes if Marchand can’t go.

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The Bruins thought they’d be in the clear with Chara, Miller, DeBrusk and Bergeron returning over the past week. But they may be a step closer to that clean bill of health as Marchand practiced Sunday.

2. Bjork’s status

A healthy Anders Bjork returned for his second season hoping to put last year’s injury-plagued rookie campaign behind him. This hasn’t been the case at all. The former Hobey Baker finalist struggled with consistency that resulted in a goal and two assists during his 20 games in his second season with Boston.

This forced Don Sweeney’s hand. The Bruins’ general manager sent Bjork to Providence hoping to give the young forward a confidence boost. He’s played fairly well in his second AHL stint, but Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy confirmed Sunday it won’t be enough to earn a call-up in time to return to his collegiate home for three seasons.

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3. Who starts in net?

The Bruins’ goaltending rotation featuring Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask kept the team afloat amidst a season of injuries and offensive struggles. But a shaky outing from each goaltender — Rask in Carolina and Halak at home against New Jersey — puts a question mark over the Winter Classic starter.

Rask got the starting nod in Buffalo Saturday night and bounced back from his rough performance in Carolina. Halak, who got the bulk of the starts over the past few weeks, tends to bounce back whenever he struggles. The latter may be close to unseating the polarizing Rask as the team’s starter, but that might wait a little while longer.

Cassidy will confirm his goaltender following the team’s practice at Notre Dame Stadium (barring inclement weather) on New Year’s Eve. Rask would like nothing more than to overcome his 2016 disappointment at Gillette Stadium and lead his team to victory. Halak, meanwhile, eyes his first career outdoor start. Something has to give.

4. The Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup

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There’s no question that the Blackhawks earned the distinction as the team of the 2010’s. But their days of competing for Lord’s Stanley Cup are over, at least for now.

Only a handful of players remain from their last Stanley Cup team in 2015, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford. The dynamic Toews-Kane duo is still producing at a high rate in their prime, but Keith and Seabrook are slowly declining and Crawford’s injury history over the past two years put Chicago’s goaltending situation in limbo. This, along with a new head coach and questionable front office decisions, brings the Blackhawks into a rebuilding phase.

Only the Kings and Blues have fewer points than the Blackhawks in the Western Conference entering 2019. But there’s no doubt that Chicago will want to leave Notre Dame with two points in arguably their biggest game of the season. Their next big task after that: getting the top pick in the 2019 Draft for the right to select Jack Hughes.

5. The atmosphere at Notre Dame

The oversaturation of outdoor hockey games put the Winter Classic in a tough spot from a marketing standpoint. This, along with the exhaustion of the Blackhawks taking part in an open-air hockey game, makes the 2019 version a tough sell for the casual hockey fan.

Even with the troubling ticket sales leading up to the event, the league should still feel confident in holding the game at an iconic outdoor venue. Having two big and passionate hockey markets will help the viewing experience in the stadium and on the big screen. But the Blackhawks’ struggles might leave some empty sections among the 78,000-seat arena.

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