This is not what you expect to see from the Detroit Red Wings. Their road record heading into Wednesday’s game against the Calgary Flames was a lowly 3-5-2. Their power play hadn’t scored outside of Joe Louis Arena all season. Detroit’s top two players, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, ranked among the NHL’s top-25 scorers but the next two, Damien Brunner and Niklas Kronwall, came in at No. 63 and 81.
As head coach Mike Babcock put it when talking about his group: “Would you like to have three unbelievable players on three lines? Sure. That’s the Red Wings of the 90s.”
The Red Wings of 2013 are not the glory unit of old; too many retirements and defections have seen to that. What they are is a good team whose consistency has been hampered by injuries to keynote contributors Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula, both of whom are only now working their way back into the lineup. Darren Helm is another player whose effectiveness has been missed and proof that Detroit is no longer as deep and skilled as it once was.
Babcock explained that, to win, the Red Wings have to fashion as strong a defensive game as possible.
“We’ve had to find a way as a coaching staff to win. We’ve been checking,” Babcock said of the team’s approach. “The last two games we gave up eight and five scoring chances. That’s unbelievable – and we lost both times. So why is that? Is that personnel? Are we checking Datsyuk and Zetterberg into a standstill? I don’t think so. I think we’re trying to play the game within the skill set we have.”
The Red Wings’ skill set remains high at the top end – Zetterberg has 27 points in 26 games while Datsyuk has 25 in 25 games. It’s the mid- to lower portion of the roster where the loss of players such as Jiri Hudler, now with the Flames, has made goal scoring more difficult. The current plan calls for Detroit to win by a 2-1 margin since goals have been hard to come by in the last seven games, four of them losses.
Dan Cleary, who started his career with the Red Wings when Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan were still there, insisted that losing Nik Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Hudler before the start of this season has taken another bite out of things. But it has also allowed the organization a chance to look at many of its younger players, and that’s proven to be encouraging.
“It is the evolution of guys moving on and new guys getting their opportunity,” said Cleary. “For us, it helps that the core has been kept together and that we have Datsyuk and Zetterberg. With them, we’re transitioning into tighter, defensive team.”
But not scoring a power-play goal on the road?
“Can you explain that?” asked Cleary. “I can’t.”
What Babcock and his players believe is that they’re poised for an upswing. With most everyone back and playing smart positional hockey, the forward lines can be planned with the right people being in the right spots to succeed. Filppula’s return from a shoulder injury is the key to icing the right combinations.
“I think Filppula coming back could really help (rookie) Brunner,” added Babcock. “Then you have Zetterberg and Filppula, Datsyuk and Franzen together and there’s enough for and there's enough for them to be who they are and capable. Brunns is a guy who can shoot the puck and he’s figuring out the North American game and schedule. You can imagine the wear and tear on him - not only on offence; he’s got to check. To play on our team, you have to check.”
That whatever-it-takes-to-win attitude is very much a carryover from the glory era. It has helped keep the Red Wings competitive while holding them in high esteem, even among their rivals.
“The one thing about the Red Wings is they always play the right way and their best players are good defensively,” said Flames’ defenceman Dennis Wideman. “They may not look as high-powered as a few years ago but you’ve got to respect them.”