The NHL’s 2014 Winter Classic is a clash of two Original Six rivals in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings. It’s guaranteed to be a big ratings draw and, given its proximity to Southern Ontario (aka the heart of “Leafs Nation”) should fill Michigan Stadium.

It’s also the first Winter Classic which could be the sole high point for two clubs struggling to hang onto their playoff berths in the Eastern Conference. After 36 games the Red Wings have 39 points, the Maple Leafs 37, with both teams holding down the Conference’s two wild card spots.

This season's Winter Classic could feature two potential non-playoffs clubs

This season’s Winter Classic could feature two potential non-playoffs clubs

Both clubs have suffered through their share of injuries this season. The Wings curently have eight players sidelined, including such notables as Henrik Zetterberg, Jimmy Howard and Johan Franzen. Pavel Datsyuk also missed a couple of weeks to concussion. The Leafs two best centers (Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak) have been on the shelf for several weeks, while winger Joffrey Lupul’s been in and out of the lineup.

The Red Wings are also going through a transition period, bringing in younger players they hope will blossom into stars, while the Maple Leafs’ hopes of building upon last season’s success are threatened by their poor defensive play.

Their respective struggles could provide an interesting measure of intrigue to this year’s HBO 24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic series not seen in previous series.

In the last two series, the teams involved (Pittsburgh and Washington in 2011, NY Rangers and Philadelphia in 2012) were certain playoff contenders, so the focus was primarily upon their stars and daily behind-the-scene activities of the teams involved, along with a unique perspective of game action not seen by the usual game coverage.

With the Leafs and Wings struggling, however, there’s an added measure of pressure facing those clubs which was absent from the previous 24/7 series, which hopefully will come through over the course of this year’s series. That pressure comes not only from within but from fans and pundits questioning every move and critiquing every loss.

It’ll be interesting to see how the players and coaches cope with that pressure as they try to overcome their current struggles. This series could either depict how one or both clubs reached their turning points in the season, or as focal points of a failed season.