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Detroit Red Wings centre Henrik Zetterberg, of Sweden, is congratulated by teammates after his second goal during the first period of an NHL game against the St. Louis Blues in Detroit, Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
Detroit Red Wings centre Henrik Zetterberg, of Sweden, is congratulated by teammates after his second goal during the first period of an NHL game against the St. Louis Blues in Detroit, Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Duhatschek: The more things change, the more they stay the same for Wings Add to ...

The newest members of the NHL’s Eastern Conference are the Detroit Red Wings, although you wouldn’t know it by their early travel schedule, which looks a lot like last year’s.

The Red Wings have paid visits to five of their former Western Conference rivals already this season, and they are one of the few East teams thriving in the crossover games.

Of all issues that stalled the realignment process, the most controversial was the imbalance between conferences – 16 teams in the East, 14 in the West. Mathematically, it made the path to the playoffs seem far easier in the West. And yet, here we are, a month into the season, and it’s the same mismatch as always.

The West is crushing the East in head-to-head competition (going 61-26-9 prior to Monday’s games). If the playoffs had started Monday, it would have taken four fewer points to qualify in the East than in the West.

Detroit – which wrapped up a four-game swing through Western Canada by playing the Winnipeg Jets on Monday – is one of only five Eastern Conference teams with a winning record against the West. By contrast, 12 of 14 West teams had winning records against the East, and Winnipeg – the team that effectively swapped places with Detroit under NHL realignment – was 1-1-1.

Last year, the Red Wings were road warriors, seemingly playing in Southern California or Western Canada every other week. Then, they were back at it in the first playoff round, going seven games against the Anaheim Ducks, a team playing three time zones away.

So even if it doesn’t look a lot different yet, team captain Henrik Zetterberg believes the switch to the East will eventually make a difference.

“It will benefit us in the long run,” he said. “Up to now, we’ve been travelling quite a bit, but it’s going to be nice, going down the stretch, after the Olympics [in February]. I think we have our last West Coast trip at the beginning of January, and after that, it’s mostly East Coast. That’s going to help us a lot – and we’re looking forward to it.”

The Red Wings were a team that started slowly last year, but got better in the second half and, in the end, gave the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks all they could handle in the second round, before losing the series in seven games. The Red Wings would never say they ran out of gas, but that’s what it looked like – and one of the things that they hope to avoid in their new conference.

Zetterberg is 33, Pavel Datsyuk is 35, and both are off to fast starts this season. People talk about how championship windows close and how the Red Wings was supposed to falter after Nicklas Lidstrom retired in 2012, but right now, you’d have to put them alongside the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins as the three most likely teams to emerge from the East next spring.

In the post-Lidstrom era, the Red Wings integrated a handful of new faces into the lineup – and the same holds true again this season. Rookie defenceman Danny DeKeyser playing as a regular, centre Stephen Weiss still trying to find his place, and secondary scoring still an issue. Only Daniel Alfredsson, the former Ottawa Senators captain, has made a relatively seamless transition to his new digs.

“Last year, obviously, we made some big changes and got some young kids coming in and it took a while before we found out what kind of team we were and how we should play,” Zetterberg said. “The way we ended the year was really important for us – and for all the new guys that came in.

“It’s the same thing now. We made some big changes and it’s going to take a while. I think you’ve been seeing that in our game.

“Sometimes, it’s really good and sometimes, it’s really bad, so … we’ve just got to find a way to be more consistent.”

Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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