It was not a pretty win, but two points is two points. Not only did the Red Wings scratch and claw in last night’s victory over the reeling Vancouver Canucks, but they also overcame adversity to do it. Maintaining positioning in the jumbled Eastern Conference playoff race was at stake.
Goaltender Jonas Gustavsson left the game due to dizziness, and Jimmy Howard relieved him and secured the shutout. The peerless Henrik Zetterberg was once again the fulcrum in the Wings’ game-winning goal, finding daylight through the darkness for a Justin Abdelkader tally.
What makes these Red Wings unique is that, after two decades-plus of being a powerhouse in the Western Conference and making the playoffs year after year, this current team has relied on their NHL and AHL teams to help keep them afloat in the Wild Card race.
But if you watch Detroit enough, and stare at the teams in the Eastern Conference long enough, you can find the flaws in their adversaries pretty easily, and imagine a scenario in which Detroit makes an unlikely run to the Cup — like the Los Angeles Kings in 2012.
There is no way in hell they disembowel the competition like the Kings did that postseason. But if a few things break right, it does not seem unthinkable to imagine the Red Wings as the Eastern Conference darkhorse. Detroit has suffered devastating injuries all season long, which has hamstrung their offense and left them wanting for points. But as a result of the injuries, the Red Wings have unearthed a trove of offensive depth.
Players like Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, and Joakim Andersson have stepped up to the dais and looked dynamic. These fledgling Red Wings play the Detroit way through and through – with their time spent marinating in Grand Rapids paying obvious dividends. (Although, Johan Franzen is still recovering from his concussion and will not be able to play, he was selected for Sweden’s Sochi team. Nyquist got the reserve spot to replace Franzen over the Capitals’ Marcus Johansson and Predators’ Patric Hornqvist.)
The Detroit way means working as hard off the puck as with it. The Red Wings are masters of the Wes Welker-style pick play, which frees up their linemates and buys valuable time and space. When in puck possession, using one’s body and hands to protect the puck is pivotal; Detroit desires as much territorial time as possible, and boxing a player out with your butt or using your forearm to create separation – Todd Bertuzzi – allows that to happen.
Typically, carrying the puck on the zone entry is preferred by Detroit, but coach Mike Babcock recognizes his team’s inexperience and advocates dumping the puck in when a player is feeling too much heat from the opponent. Detroit emphasizes back pressure from their forwards when opponents try to counter and for their own transitions to come in levels. (A staggered counterrush applies pressure on the opponent to reconfigure on the fly, forcing the competitor to worry about eliminating the seam pass while trying to identify where his spot in the team’s coverage should be.)
It is exciting to see that some of team’s talent, which has been developing in the AHL, is NHL-ready. The Tatar-Sheahan-Jurco line is explosive and effective; each of the trio complements the other and knows where to go on the ice to exploit his opponents or play to his linemate’s strength. This line played together in Grand Rapids, and its chemistry is clear.
Tatar-Sheahan-Jurco make an impact every shift, and the crazy thing is, if everything breaks right, they could become Detroit’s third line. The lines above them, if healthy, which is a massive if, would be some iterations of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson, Johan Franzen, Gustav Nyquist, Justin Abdelkader, and Todd Bertuzzi or Stephen Weiss.
Incredibly, Joakim Andersson, Drew Miller, Darren Helm, Daniel Cleary, Patrick Eaves, Luke Glendening, and Mikael Samuelsson have not even been discussed! That is some serious, ridiculous depth. The Red Wings are replete with speed, puck skills, and creativity, but how healthy and playoff-ready they will be are question marks.
Zetterberg and Datsyuk are two of the best forwards in the world, and in the postseason they unleash a fifth gear. Remember, this team was up 3-1 in games on the Blackhawks in the Western Conference semifinals last year; they went to overtime to decide game seven.
How well a team does in the postseason can be dictated by matchups. Looking back on the last few playoffs: Would the Washington Capitals have made it to the finals in 2010 if they had drawn the Philadelphia Flyers instead of the Montreal Canadiens and their red-hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak? Were the Boston Bruins good enough to reach the Cup in 2010 if they had not run into the Flyers and had their historic collapse? In 2011, would Vancouver have had a little more gas in the tank in the Cup finals against Boston if they had not played that epic first-round series against Chicago and played Los Angeles instead? Did New Jersey luck out by reaching the Cup in 2012 without having to play Boston or Pittsburgh? Did Los Angeles get worn out by having to go through St. Louis and then San Jose before playing Chicago in 2013?
If the playoffs started today, the Boston Bruins would be matched up against the Montreal Canadiens. That could not be a worse matchup for Boston, since the Habs play Boston better than any team in the conference. Montreal has the historical dominance, and this season they have won both contests against the Bruins.
If the Canadiens were to pull the upset, the Eastern Conference representative from last season would already be out, and would open up the door for the remaining teams in the conference. If the playoffs started today, Detroit would play Pittsburgh, and while the Penguins have won the sole matchup between the two of them, would that really be a great first-round series for Pittsburgh?
The Penguins are a two-line team with a decent defensive corps and serious uncertainty at goaltender. The formula for beating the Penguins is well known; batter and bruise them, get overly physical and try to disrupt and disturb Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines as best possible, and make your impact on the scoreboard against their very weak third and fourth line. The Penguins are perennially a team wounded by injuries. Marc-Andre Fleury has played well this season, but his last few playoff meltdowns should not be discounted. They were not just bad, they were cover-your-eyes awful.
The nominal starting goaltender for Detroit Jimmy Howard – who has been mediocre this season – would still get the goaltending edge over Fleury. Zetterberg and Datsyuk could go head to head with Crosby and Malkin and possibly shut those guys down. If Detroit were to pull an unlikely upset over the Penguins, and the Bruins were also eliminated by Montreal, this would leave a very promising path for one of the lower seeds to reach the Cup.
So why not Detroit? They would have the best pair of forwards among the teams that would qualify for the playoffs – although Tampa Bay has an argument with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
But if you were making the argument for why the Red Wings have no shot at making any noise in the postseason, the back end would be the best reasoning aside from health issues. When Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson are both healthy, they make an awesome pairing. But after those two, it gets murkier.
Danny DeKeyser has evident upside, and his vision and skating are on full display whenever he circles the net and charges up the ice. But DeKeyser has played under 55 NHL games, and his inexperience shows sometimes. He can be too reckless with the puck and lose his assignment in coverage, although that is true for all the Red Wings’ defenders excluding Kronwall and Ericsson.
DeKeyser is the Red Wings’ third best defenseman after Kronwall and Ericsson, and his potential is significant because he garnered some discussion for the United States Sochi team. He has a strong shot from the point and can accomplish a strong zone entry. He is comfortable with the puck and getting better, and his mistakes are ones that you can live with if you are coach Mike Babcock because the rest of the defense is so rocky.
Rounding out the top six are Kyle Quincey, Jakub Kindl, and Brendan Smith. The four through six on defense for Detroit can move the puck, make the first pass, and provide a good shot from the blue line – but their weaknesses are worrisome. They are susceptible to turnovers, can be bullied off the puck, concede too much time and space, and fail to recognize tactical machinations opponents will use off the faceoff and on the power play. The Red Wings play man-to-man defense in their own zone, and too often enemy forwards are running amok in the Red Wings’ defensive zone.
Puck luck going forward should be about the same. The Red Wings all-situations’ PDO is 99.4, so they have not been unlucky. This is a team that has been plagued by injuries all season long, but their principles of controlling puck possession and pushing the puck to establish territorial advantage still holds true – the Red Wings remain on the good side of the ledger regardless of how you configure their situational settings. And often, a strong Corsi and Fenwick bode well for postseason success.
The Red Wings have very good forwards and impressive organizational depth, but they are still struggling from Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart’s departures — Lidstrom more obviously but Stuart was a big loss too – and require a much better performance from Jimmy Howard after Sochi. Howard’s save percentage is .913, and if Detroit fancies itself as not just a playoff team but a real Cup contender, Howard will need to be close to the .920 range he has hit the last two regular seasons.
The Red Wings have a lot of grizzled veterans and young players who are mixing together to make it an interesting season. They are tied for the lead among NHL teams sending players to Sochi – Nyquist replacing Franzen keeps it at 10 — so their roster will have some tread on it come playoff time. But the talent at forward is there, and Howard is a very good goaltender. All the Eastern Conference teams are flawed, which once again raises the question: Why not Detroit?