5 Ways Detroit Red Wings Can Shake off March, Thrive in the Playoffs

Garrett ElliottContributor IIIApril 3, 2012

5 Ways Detroit Red Wings Can Shake off March, Thrive in the Playoffs

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    There are five keys to the Detroit Red Wings turning around their late-season slump and making a run at another Stanley Cup. Will they be able to turn it around in time? We will find out when the playoffs begin next week.

    The Red Wings find themselves literally limping their way into the NHL playoffs. But, even with their recent struggles, the Red Wings are a talented bunch with a lot of playoff experience.

    There is no doubt that, when healthy, the Red Wings are one of the best teams in the NHL. They proved that through the first five months of the season when they were in the race for the Presidents' Trophy. 

    Here are five things that the Red Wings can do to get back to playing winning hockey. 

5. Cure Road Woes

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    The Red Wings are 16-21-3 on the road this season. Currently, that is the worst road record of all the teams who have clinched, or are eligible to clinch a playoff berth. It will also be the first time this century that the Red Wings will finish a season below .500 on the road.

    The record is not the only concern for the Red Wings on the road. At home this season, the Red Wings have only allowed 1.97 goals against per game, third best in the NHL. However, on the road, they have allowed 2.93 goals against per game, ranked 21st in the NHL. 

    Another concern has been the drop in offensive production for the Red Wings on the road. At Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings have scored 139 goals this season, which is the most in the NHL. On the road, though, the Red Wings have only scored 95 goals, 17th in the NHL.

    The road woes are very surprising, especially with the veteran leadership on the Red Wings and the experience behind the bench, starting with head coach Mike Babcock. 

    The Red Wings looked to be turning their road woes around in late January and early February, winning four of five games away from home. But they are 1-8-2 on the road since then.

    In their current playoff position, fourth overall in the West, the Red Wings would likely not have home-ice advantage following the first round. Unless they learn how to play better— and more importantly, win—away from the Joe, it will be a short postseason in Hockeytown.  

4. Niklas Kronwall

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    When people think of the key to the Red Wings defense, Nicklas Lidstrom is the first name that comes to mind. However, it's his Swedish teammate, Niklas Kronwall, whose play seems to have the biggest effect on the team's success. 

    In losses this season, Kronwall is a minus-24 in the plus/minus department, compared to a plus-23 in victories. That is the biggest split, by far, of any Red Wings defenseman.

    While Kronwall is a fan favorite—largely due to the frequency in which opponents have been "Kronwalled"—his play on the road must improve in the playoffs or the Red Wings will struggle to go far.

    Part of Kronwall's problems may be due to his propensity to pinch offensively. While it has led to him leading all Red Wings defensemen in goals (15) and points (36), it has also led to many odd-man rushes for opponents and goals against. 

    But all is not lost for Kronwall. In 74 career playoff games, he is a plus-27 and averages over 23 minutes of ice time per game. If he can continue that playoff success, the Red Wings should be able to continue theirs also. 

3. Special Teams

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    The Red Wings power play has been a mystery all season. 

    From February 28 to March 19, the Red Wings failed to convert on 31 consecutive power play chances. They then went 5-for-16 over the next five games and looked to be turning things around. However, they're 0-for-6 in the two games since. 

    Bad luck has played a part in the Red Wings' power play struggles, as they've hit the post on the power play in each of their last two games. But Babcock has said the key for the Red Wings is to stick to the basics on the power play and success will follow.

    The Red Wings' penalty kill has been very good lately, and they are now tied for 10th in the NHL in that department. In the last four games, they have killed off 15 consecutive power plays, including six in their shootout victory over the Florida Panthers on Sunday. 

    Success, or failure, on special teams in the regular season is not an automatic indicator of how far a team will go in the playoffs.

    The Red Wings had the best power play and sixth-best penalty kill in 2003, but were swept in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks. In 2009, when they lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Red Wings had the 23rd-worst penalty kill in the regular season. 

    With that said, the Red Wings have the talent to have one of the better special teams units in the league. It's time to put the pieces together. 

2. Jimmy Howard

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    Jimmy Howard has had a very good season (2.14 GAA, .920 SV%), yet he is only 2-5-2 since originally returning from a broken finger that forced him to miss six games in late February. 

    The main reason for Howard's recent struggles is not being able to get into a rhythm. Since the original injury to the finger, he has not made three straight starts. This is largely due to a nagging groin injury that he has been battling the last few weeks. 

    The knock on Howard in his two years as the starting goalie for the Red Wings is that he hasn't gotten the job done in the playoffs. While the Red Wings have not made it out of the second round the last two seasons, Howard's stats show that it hasn't been his fault.

    Last postseason, only Tim Thomas had a better goals-against average than Howard for goalies that played in as many, or more games than Howard. He also finished with the third-best save percentage—behind Thomas and Dwayne Roloson—under the same criteria.

    If Howard can improve, even slightly, on last year's number—and more importantly get completely healthy—the Red Wings should have a lot of confidence in their third-year goaltender.

1. Stay Healthy

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    It should be no surprise that the Red Wings' struggles coincided with the loss of key players due to injury. 

    At one point, the Red Wings were without Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi, Johan Franzen, Jakub Kindl, Jonathan Ericsson and Jimmy Howard—all of whom are regulars in the lineup and important pieces to the success the Red Wings enjoyed until late February.

    Prior to the injuries, the Red Wings were 41-17-2 and had set the NHL record with 23 consecutive home wins. 

    The Red Wings were able to overcome Howard's injury, as backup goaltender Joey MacDonald went 6-1-0 in his absence. However, after losing Datsyuk—the first Red Wing to be hit with a long-term injury—the team went 5-9-3 before returning to full strength last week. 

    The Red Wings have proven that, when healthy, they are one of the best teams in the NHL. Luckily, the injury bug struck early enough and they are back to full strength. The final week of the season should provide them with enough time to get their conditioning up to par. 

    If the Red Wings can do these five things, they will enjoy a long run in the playoffs and make this last month of the season look like a minor bump in the road.