One of the NHL’s elite teams, the first-overall Detroit Red Wings, come to the Bell Centre for a big game on Wednesday, big not just for the home team, now 10 points south of the eighth spot, but also for the visitors, who have won seven straight and want to pull away from the pack in the Western Conference.
It’s also the only game on the schedule as the league heads into the All-Star break, so tonight’s spotlight will shine solely on these clubs.
The Red Wings can do what all great teams do — play any style and win. They skate very well, they have magnificent skill, they can outscore opponents (with 158 goals, tied for fourth in the league; their +48 goal differential is second in the league), they can play a shutdown game (their 110 goals against are also tied for fourth in the league), they don’t beat themselves with bad penalties (their average of 8.5 minutes a game is second lowest in the league).
And if anyone thinks the Wings can be pushed around, they didn’t see Detroit’s game against the Blues on Monday night, in which St. Louis tried to intimidate the Wings, only to find them more than willing to drop the gloves and hold their own — plus forcing the Blues into penalties that resulted in two of Detroit’s tallies in a 3-1 victory, including this beauty by All-Star Pavel Datsyuk.
That’s just some of what Datsyuk does, of course. If there is a more complete player in the sport, someone who can do more things better than him, both with and without the puck, you’ll have to clue me in. The game’s best stickhandler, a great shooter, as well as a past Selke winner as top defensive forward, he too showed his willingness to physically against the Blues (video).
It’s hard to know where to begin when examining the Red Wings. They are expertly managed by Ken Holland. They scout and draft as well as any team. Their coach, McGill grad Mike Babcock, is one of the best in the league (and if you missed it, here’s a very good interview with Babcock by Mitch Melnick on TSN 990 Tuesday afternoon).
Their defence features one of the all-time greats, the ageless Nick Lidstrom, and the hard-hitting, hard-shooting Niklas Kronwall. Under the radar is Ian White, whose plus-27 is tied for second in the league and best among all defencemen. He’s also approaching his career high in points. The Wings defencemen lead the NHL with 33 goals, 11 from Kronwall and 10 from Lidstrom. The Wings d-men often come in late and are allowed to join the rush because their forwards are so good defensively and don’t commit many turnovers in the neutral zone.
In addition to Datsyuk, the forwards include another well-rounded star in Henrik Zetterberg; a trio of big bodies who can both bang and score in Tomas Holmstrom (still great in front of the net), Johan Franzen (the league leader with nine game-winning goals) and the resurgent Todd Bertuzzi; high skill guys like Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler and Dan Cleary; strong depth players like speedy Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkater; and buzz saw winger Drew Miller.
It’s an impressive collection of skaters and they play an often-beautiful puck possession game, skating to the open ice and executing sharp, creative passes. Watch how often they start their breakouts with a pass into their own slot or somewhere around their own net, which gives them more options for the next pass than teams who regularly come up the boards.
But perhaps most impressive this season has been the growth of Jimmy Howard into an All-Star goaltender. Now in his third full season as a Wing, his 30 wins leads the NHL, his goals against average of 1.95, save percentage of .926 and five shutouts are among the very best and, stats aside, he’s become one of those goalies that, when he’s on his game, not only stops all the shots he should, but lots that he shouldn’t.
Here’s a clue as to how good they are playing team defence: They are 21-1-1 when leading after two periods.
If the Red Wings have a weakness, it might be that their special teams have been strangely mediocre this year. They’re 10th on the PP at 18.9 percent, 21st on the PK at 81.4 percent (perhaps in part because they get so little PK work). But they are excellent five-on-five, their 110 goals second the NHL, their 69 goals against fifth best, but only one goal behind the three teams tied for second.
Those ingredients have resulted in Detroit winning 12 of their past 15 games over the last month and enjoy winning streaks of seven, six and five games so far. When the game goes beyond 60 minutes, they are nearly unbeatable — 3-0 in OT, 5-1 in the post-game skills competition. Simply put, this team has been tough to beat.
Babcock is a master of in-game adjustments, but here’s how the Wings might start the night:
Johan Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi
Valtteri Filppula, Henrik Zetterberg, Jiri Hudler
Drew Miller Darren Helm, Dan Cleary
Cory Emmerton, Justin Abdelkader, Tomas Holmstrom
Nicklas Lidstrom, Ian White
Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart
Jonathan Ericsson, Mike Commodore