Consistency, skill remain Wings trademarks

The Red Wings were considered one of the preseason favorites to win the Stanley Cup and their performance in the first part of the season probably hasn’t discouraged anyone who picked them.

When the Canadiens take the ice at the Joe on Friday night, they’ll be facing a team that leads the West, but is in a bit of a mini-slump, having pulled in only one point in their last three games. In fairness, the Wings were coming off a compressed trip to the West Coast, but the standards Detroit sets won’t allow them to make excuses.

So it will most likely be a determined group of Red Wings who the Habs will encounter. Coach Mike Babcock pinpointed his team’s main problem as their play coming through the neutral zone and that’s what they worked on in practice on Thursday.

But with a talent-laden line-up, led by elite players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen and Brian Raflaski, the Red Wings almost never stay in a slump for long. Longtime goalie Chris Osgood, who watched the team closely from the press box while rehabbing a groin injury last month, remarked in The Detroit Press this week how consistent his team can be.

“We play the exact same way every game,” said
Osgood, “We’re difficult
to play against and give ourselves an opportunity to get a win. We could
win a lot of games playing like this.

“I said watching (the last
month’s games) to Jimmy Bedard (the goaltending coach), this is the
best I’ve seen us play since 2008 (when the Wings won the Stanley Cup).
The way we’re playing as a group, as a team, playing smart hockey, and
we’re really diligent in all three zones. We’re tough to play against.”

And as Todd Bertuzzi told The Detroit Free Press, “Whenever we’re successful we’ve got 40-plus shots
and we’re controlling the puck down low,” That’s what the Canadiens have to protect against.

At their best, the Wings still llike to control the puck and they’re very good at getting it back when they lose it. Despite their collective age, they can skate with almost any team as long as they are rested. They ran out of gas after the first period Monday at home against the Sharks, following their road trip, and they were flat at the start of Wednesday’s game in losing to Nashville.

Osgood will back up Jimmy Howard against Montreal and the acrobatic Howard has played strong in most of his 21 appearances, his 15 wins on the season second only to Carey Price.

On defence, Lidstrom enjoyed a remarkable start to the season for a 40-year-old. A couple of weeks ago, he was tied for the lead in scoring among blueliners and while his production has stalled, he’s still not far off the pace, eight points behind Dustin Byfuglien, who’s been on fire. He still skates very well, makes great decisions with and without the puck. Babcock still has him on the ice about 24 minutes a game and that could be a bit much for one his age. He’s got a good partnership with Rafalski, who has picked up for Lidstrom, with 12 points in his last 11 games.

Nicklas Kronwall partners with Brad Stuart on the second unit. Stuart is less physical than the explosive hitter Kronwall, but he’s an excellent skater who is tough to beat in defensive situations.

Feisty veteran Ruslan Salei teams with the mobile Jonathan Ericsson on the third pair.

Up front, Babcock is fond of shaking up his lines when things don’t go according to his plan and he separated Datsyuk and Zetterberg during the last game and they practiced on separate lines Thursday.

Datsyuk was with Franzen and Holmstrom, which is a frightening threesome to ponder, with their combined size, toughness and skill. Zetterberg was flanked by Dan Cleary, who can play — and excel — in any situation, and Jiri Hudler. The very creative Hudler, who has the potential to be a 25-30 goal guy, played in the KHL last year and his return to the Wings has not gone smoothly. He’s got one goal and five assists and is a minus-8, worst on the team. There’s some thought that his game deteriorated in Russia.

Bertuzzi, still an effective power forward with five goals and 14 assists, skated Thursday with Patrick Eaves and centre Valtteri Filppula, who isn’t as physical as his wingers, both of whom can forecheck and dig the puck out along the boards well.

Hard working Drew Miller, a strong penalty killer, could team with two terrific skaters in Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader on the fourth line. They’re three relative youngsters (Helm is 26, the others 23) in this veteran lineup whose forecheck can change a game’s momentum.


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