Beware the second period.
As the Vancouver Canucks arrive at the fortress of the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, giddy with the chance to snap the Red Wings' record run of 23 wins on home ice, the No 1 position in the NHL at stake, it is the second period that could be the decisive frame of the game.
The Canucks are 1-1-1 versus the Wings this season but in the second are terrible, outshot 55-23 and outscored 4-0.
It's the same problem Vancouver generally has had this year. The team is one of the league's best in the first and third period, but in the second the Canucks have been outscored 65-57 this season and outshot 656-616.
The oddity of a weak middle frame flanked by strong first and third periods has a parallel in the Red Wings' results. Detroit is a near-perfect 26-2-1 at home - the last 23 wins rung up consecutively, of course - yet on the road the Wings are a whole other team, 15-16-1.
Unlike Detroit this season, Vancouver brings it on the road. With 20 wins, the Canucks have the most points while travelling in the league, a feat that is a testament to the team's sturdiness, given their often-gruelling itinerary. (Just consider the current six games in 10 nights, Edmonton, east and south to Nashville, north to Detroit, east again to New Jersey, way back southwest to Dallas, over to Phoenix, and home.)
Henrik Sedin says Thursday's game generates a rare excitement.
"If you have a team that has won that many games in a row, you want to be the ones to beat them," the Vancouver captain said this week.
If Vancouver wins in regulation it will take the No 1 spot in the league, tied at 84 points with Detroit with a game in hand. (The New York Rangers are close behind, three points back, and have several more games in hand.)
Some wags and cranks like to dismiss the value of the No 1 standing in the regular season, happily asserting that achievements such as the Presidents' Trophy don't matter much when it's really only the Stanley Cup that counts. And yes, sure, that's true, in one sense. But come the Western Conference finals in May, should the Canucks and Wings meet, both sides would crave home-ice advantage with a trip to the final on the line.
(This would surely be an opportune moment for wags and cranks to recall the 1995-96 Wings. While a 23-game winning streak at home is amazing, the '95-'96 home record was 36-3-2, which means the team's current incarnation has to win 11 of its last dozen at home to better that mark. In any case, with the '95-'96 Presidents' Trophy and most regular-season wins ever in hand, Detroit barely made it past the second round and lost in six in the West finals to Colorado. So much for home ice.)
There'll be some love for Vancouver in the normally hostile environs of the Joe Louis Thursday night. Vancouver second-liners Ryan Kesler and David Booth are both locals, having grown up in the Detroit suburbs. Between them there'll be 100 friends and family cheering on the visitors. Booth's sister, and one of his brothers, will be right on the ice at the glass, in seats to which Booth's parents have had a share of season tickets for nearly three decades.
In medical news, the Canucks come to Detroit pretty much healthy across the roster, save for the absence of defenceman Keith Ballard, for whom 22-year-old Chris Tanev has ably filled in (and looks very promising longer-term). The Wings this week welcomed back winger Danny Cleary after an absence of five games. However, the team lost leading scorer Pavel Datsyuk. The centre on Monday said something felt "not right" in his knee, according to Wings general manager Ken Holland. Datsyuk underwent arthroscopic surgery described as "minor" to have old bone fragments removed. He is expected back on the ice by mid-March.
This week, Roberto Luongo joked that some Canucks and Wings players bantered back in early February, when the Wings were approaching 20-straight wins at home and were visiting Vancouver (with Detroit winning 4-3 in a shootout on Feb. 2). The Canucks urged the Wings to keep the Ws going in Detroit until Vancouver showed up.
"'Hold on till we get there, at least so we can get a chance,'" the Vancouver goaltender recalled. "That's what's fun about playing the game, challenges like that."