Detroit Red Wings: 5 Things the Wings Need in Second Half of Season
If at the beginning of this season someone would have told me the Red Wings would be leading the Central Division at the half-way mark, I wouldn't have been surprised.
However, leading the Central Division whilst entangled in a three-way points tie with Chicago and St. Louis would have been, and indeed is, surprising.
The Central Division has become perhaps the most competitive in the NHL and there is nothing resembling clarity regarding which team will actually end up on top at season's end.
The Detroit Red Wings are as good a bet as any though.
With 26 wins—two more than Chicago or St. Louis and a Western Conference-leading plus-40 goal differential—one could argue that even though all three teams have banked 53 points, the Red Wings are still the (slightly) better team.
Strong defensive play, great goaltending and scoring depth have all helped the Red Wings get to where they are at Game 41.
However, there's even more that will need to happen in order for the Wings to end up in the northern-most part of the standings by Game 82.
Taking for granted that the good things we've seen to date will continue in Detroit, here are five things that must happen immediately for the Red Wings to finish the season as true contenders.
On the injury front, the Red Wings have been decidedly blessed to this point of the season.
After suffering through a plague of injuries the past two seasons—many to key players for long stretches of time—the team has remained amazingly healthy through 41 games.
Only six regulars have sat out more than one game, and the next lengthiest layoff belongs to the recently returned Tomas Holmstrom who missed eight games with a groin injury.
Whatever rabbit's foot Mike Babcock is rubbing seems to be working, and he'd do well to get a second one for the other pocket the rest of the way through.
All the skill and execution in the world won't help a team decimated by injuries.
So here's hoping the Red Wings sick bay stays as vacant as it has to date.
(Much) Improved Penalty Killing
To be fair, the Red Wings are the second-least penalized team in the NHL.
Having so little time to hone their penalty-killing skills could be a reason they currently sit 23rd in the league in that department, but it shouldn't be an excuse.
As the season moves on to the second half, the Red Wings would be well-served to make whatever adjustments necessary to improve their play when down a man.
Special teams play will only grow in importance as the playoffs approach, and once play moves past Game 82, a shaky penalty-kill could very well end a team's season for good.
The Wings have top-notch penalty-killers in Drew Miller, Dan Cleary and Nicklas Lidstrom, and equally good goaltending in Jimmy Howard.
Personnel isn't a problem, but clearly something needs to get better within this group sooner rather than later.
A Better Aim from Henrik Zetterberg
Now, this one might be a tad nit-picky but allow me to explain.
Henrik Zetterberg is currently on pace to amass 16 goals this season. If he hits that mark, it would be just the second of his eight NHL seasons he finishes below the 20-goal plateau.
Zetterberg logs an average of 19:21 minutes of ice time per game, the most among all Wings forwards.
However, he leads the team in total shots with 130.
Regardless, he is the worst among the team's top six forwards in shooting percentage, making good on just six percent of his shots.
Top forwards, like Zetterberg, need to score goals for the Red Wings to be successful.
Zetterberg isn't scoring goals.
Zetterberg logs plenty of ice time and takes plenty of shots. Ergo, Zetterberg needs to improve his aim in the second half for the Red Wings to be successful.
Strong Play from Ty Conklin
A career year in the making by Jimmy Howard has meant a reservation on the bench for Ty Conklin on most nights this season.
Despite earning a shutout in his first start this season, Conklin has been nothing but beatable in five of the six games he's played since.
A strong showing in Chicago on Sunday gave hope to the idea that Conklin is still capable when called upon. Still, he'll need to build on that momentum in order to convince GM Ken Holland that his time wouldn't be well spent working the phones to acquire another goalie by the trade deadline.
Howard will no doubt be the goalie of record for most of the games moving forward, but the ability to give him a few nights off along the way will be key to maintaining a fresh and healthy Howard.
Conks has proved a valuable asset in Detroit before—he earned 25 wins with the team in 2008-09.
He needs to rediscover some of that magic again, and fast.
The good news is, the Red Wings will play 23 of their remaining 42 games in the cozy confines of Joe Louis Arena where they win a whopping 84 percent of the time.
The bad news is, they'll have only a 48 percent chance of winning their remaining 18 road games if the current trend continues.
Slow starts, giveaways and sloppy play have come to define the Red Wings' road games this season and it needs to become a part of their past if their future is to be as bright as it can be.
Winning on the road is a vital part of success during the regular season and an absolute must in the playoffs.
Set aside the points they'll leave on the table should their road woes continue. Habitually losing away games will cost them dearly in the playoffs.